Putting Labour back on track

Christian Wolmar and Neal Lawson argue that Transport Minister Stephen Byers should be backed not sacked for his handling of the crisis that finally killed off Railtrack

The ferocity of last week’s attacks by Tories over the way Stephen Byers killed off Railtrack is a welcome return to two-party politics, not just following the outbreak of the war but for the first time since the 1997 election. Byers may be the principal target of the Conservative benches and in the right-wing press, but he is fast turning into an unlikely hero of the Labour rank and file and, moreover, his takeover of Railtrack could mark a complete shift in emphasis by New Labour.

The Labour backbenchers, who have spent the past four and a half years swallowing their principles, have, at last, something to cheer about. It might not be full-blooded socialism, but it does end the accommodation with the Thatcherite agenda.

The Tories have accused Byers of behaving dishonestly by preparing plans for the takeover of Railtrack well in advance of his eventual move, and of misleading the House by saying he did not threaten the regulator, Tom Winsor, to try to prevent him intervening in the takeover. The first is nonsense, since such a radical plan had to be prepared in advance, and the second boils down to semantics, though Byers has sailed close to the wind. More interestingly, however, Winsor spent most of his time in the committee room pointing the finger at the hapless Railtrack directors, who, on the weekend of 6 October rolled over in the face of Byers’ move without much of a fight, surprising even the Minister himself who expected them to bat more strongly for the shareholders.

But all this is a mere political peccadillo compared with the implications of Railtrack’s demise, which, had it not been for the war, would have dominated the past month’s political agenda. What has really got up Tories’ noses is a much more fundamental concern. The takeover of Railtrack is the first real unravelling of their 20-year agenda. As a source close to Byers put it: ‘We did not try anything like this in the first term. This is the most radical thing we have done and we’re not surprised at the flak.’

Politics is usually cock-up rather than conspiracy and Byers’ move over Railtrack was initially prompted by necessity rather than any real radical intent. The company was a financial black hole for the taxpayer but it took some political courage to reject the ‘muddle through and just give them more cash’ option being suggested by his civil servants. Instead, Byers has taken what could be a bold and far-reaching step. Railtrack could be the symbol that kick-starts Labour’s long-mooted ‘radical’ second term. It breaks key psychological barriers for the Blairites, inverting the golden rule of New Labour by putting substance before style.

More importantly it shows that Ministers do not have to be shackled by the constraints which had previously restricted the Government’s approach. First it goes beyond managerialism. New Labour has a bad habit of accepting political structures as they are and focusing on better management as the solution to delivery expectations.

Second, his decision challenges for the first time the supremacy afforded by New Labour to the market and the private sector. At long last there is an admission that markets and companies can fail and that political intervention is necessary. The City is huffing and puffing but largely because its ever-so-clever analysts failed to spot that Railtrack was, in effect, bankrupt from the outset. A bit of old-fashioned antagonism between the City and the Labour Government is healthy for democracy.

Most important, however, is the way that Byers’ move shows that, with a bit of courage, New Labour can rein back Thatcherism’s legacy. Labour could now begin to create the icons of its own political beliefs. The ultimate shape of NuTrak, Railtrack’s replacement, is unclear but the initial suggestion of a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee is radical and novel.

NuTrak is an opportunity to create a new type of organisation which, at the very least, reflects the values of a more social capitalism. This is about New Labour’s legacy – what it leaves behind that can’t be undone such as institutions like the NHS, that become part of a national political settlement.

On Tuesday, Byers faces the ordeal of a full-scale debate in the chamber followed by an appearance before the Commons Transport Sub-Committee the following day.

As the lobby briefing on Thursday made clear, he has the full support of the Prime Minister and even horny-handed left-wing Labour MPs will be cheering him on. He is not, as the Tory press have suggested, in any danger of losing his job.

His real test, however, will be to sort out a new structure for the rail industry, split into 100 parts by the Tories’ disastrous privatisation. If he succeeds, he will not just have had five minutes of glory among his colleagues, but he will have opened the door towards a genuine Third Way that offers a real alternative to the relentless onslaught of Thatcher’s privatisation programme.

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