Since the Hatfield train crash, The call for re-nationalisation of Railtrack has become a stock demand on the left. It has to be said that this is not an unrealistic demand. But where would it lead us?
Should the current rail debacle continue, there is certainly a possibility that a future Labour government may be forced to take Railtrack back into state ownership. While this would make it easier for the government to pump state money into the network as a means of improving the service to passengers, it would do little to improve the plight of those working on the railway. For if Labour re-nationalises Railtrack, it will only do so on the basis of forming a state-run administering company, which would then subcontract the work out to private companies in the same way as Railtrack does at the moment. Furthermore, it would still leave the train operating companies in the private sector. They would no doubt be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of massive state subsidies being channelled to them directly through a new state-run company.
Some on the left go further, and demand that a future Labour government should take back the whole of the industry under state control. This is fantasy land. There is as much chance of Labour fully re-nationalising the railways as there is of Blair nationalising the banks. Under New Labour, old style nationalisation is a nonstarter. The old left routine of calling on Labour to take real action simply will no longer wash. We may as well call on the Tories to do it.
Rather than empty slogans, we need realistic solutions. The trauma that is rail workers' everyday working life stems from the casualisation of the workforce which followed privitisation. Not least, this caused the shattering of the national agreements which had previously ensured minimum conditions for everyone in the industry. These national agreements were underpinned by bargaining procedures. Over the years, the rail unions became so dependent on these bargaining procedures, they became a primary means through which the union organised.
Following privatisation, the bargaining procedures and national agreements were swept away, leaving nothing for the unions and workers. Now, the starting point of the fight back must be to confront casualisation by seeking to establish minimum industry-wide agreements. Local, regional and ultimately national agreements will not happen through a consensus or partnership approach. The days when union strength was maintained by management's willingness to negotiate are long gone. The gangsters that now run much of the railways will only make concessions when they are pinned down and forced to. We must start setting our own agenda – one where industrial relations are based on class struggle and the fact that management and workers have nothing in common.
Modern industrial relations are based largely on management intimidation. Given this, no way will workers be convinced by the unions' strategy to reason with management to secure a better deal. Only by arguing for exposing management, and taking direct action against the casualisation onslaught, are unions going to get workers to begin to take notice. Class conflict, where the brutality of management is matched by the determination of the workers to defend themselves will lead to two crucial things. First, re-emergence of real, working unions, and second, more confidence among workers to go that step further.
Once direct action based workplace organisations are established, solidarity can be organised between and across the various rail sector companies. This will be the basis for building industry-wide agreements. However, class conflict cannot exist in a vacuum. Permanent confrontation with management has to be sustained by a long-term goal. That goal must be the permanent defeat of management by the establishment of an industry run by the workers themselves in self-managed society. Such a movement will not come about from empty slogans about Labour governments nationalising the railways – they start with the day-to-day struggle against management.