Archive for February, 2013

Railways and fat cats: subsidy junkies get all shy on us.

19 Feb

For both Marxists and capitalists, it’s all about profit; or the accumulated use – and abuse  – of surplus value.

It isn’t just about the economy, stupid, because at it’s heart politics has never been about anything else.

And by that I don’t mean gibberish about fiscal discipline, inflation or markets – I mean power, influence, control, people’s lives at work…….how things operate in the real world.

In the teeth of this unprecedented neo-liberal attack aimed at the very core principle  of public spending: cuts to health, education, housing, transport, policing and welfare, it’s strangely heartening to see eye-watering greed alive and well and flaunted full in the face of a gobsmacked British public.

I’m talking, of course, about public transport.

More specifically,  the perfect storm raging in our publicly subsidised yet privately run railway system; the insatiable, subsidy-eating monster created by the failure of successive governments to either privatise it or to take it back into public ownership.

When you examine things closely, supposedly private train operators such as Virgin Trains and First Great Western are actually bigger recipients of public spending – let’s call it ‘welfare’ – than an army of so-called benefit scroungers could be in a million lifetimes.

When we had a single rail industry run by a single entity,  British Rail,  between £1bn and £1.5bn in today’s money was spent by the taxpayer in rolling stock, track and infrstructure.

In 2013, and with vastly overpriced railway services about as popular as finding a scorpion in your underwear, £4 billion pounds of taxpayers’ money is being poured in.

Is the railway four times as efficient? Four times cheaper?

The proportion of government subsidy to passenger revenue fluctuated between 26.2 % in 2000-01 and 55.7% in 2006-07, but in real terms we’re paying more every year for a worsening service.

Sound familiar?

The Press Association recently did a bit of digging and tried to find out what salaries the public-sector transport directors were taking home.

After all, if £4bn of public money is being spent subsiding rail travel, shouldn’t we know where and how it’s being spent?

Apparently not.

Generally useless Freedom of Information laws were suddenly unfurled before our eyes and subsidy junkies First Capital Connect, Greater Anglia trains, Southeastern, First Great Western, London Midland et al decided that they were private companies and therefore not obliged to reply.

Only the fully-publicly owned East Coast Main Line was forced to reveal that eight of their directors are on salaries of £100,000 a year or more.

The Independent newspaper recently showed that Network Rail’s Chief Executive gets £560,000 per annum. NR Finance Director Patrick Butcher gets a mere £382,000. First Group’s Chief Executive Tim O’Toole gets a package worth more than a million pounds a year, National Express Chief Executive Dean Finch got £1.4m in 2011, Go Ahead CE Dave Brown’s salary package is worth £900,000…..the list goes on and on and on.

The UK has the most expensive and over-crowded railways in Europe ,

A third of all commuters use the train because they have no alternative.

Surveys show plummeting levels of customer satisfaction.

And yet a small handful of parasites are lining their pockets with six and seven figure packages, packages constructed largely of taxpayer’s money.

If that doesn’t make you support renationalising our railway network, I’m really not sure what will…..

What’s the fuss about same-sex marriage?

05 Feb

Seriously, what’s the fuss about equal marriage?

Why am I being subjected to seemingly endless articles and interviews about a tiny group of professional medievalists opposed to marital equality for same sex couples?

There is no deep ideological schism on grounds of either faith or politics here: most British people are in favour of greater equality for LGBT people in the civic sphere, and that majority includes the current Prime Minister and most of his hangers-on.

So why are we paying attention to low-flying Tory homophobes and swivel-eyed zealots who insist on quoting selectively from the Bible?

Part of the answer is the internal war going on within the Conservative Party, chiefly the resentment and dislike of Call-me-Dave for failing to deliver an outright Tory majority in 2012. Apparently, he isn’t right-wing enough……

The Conservative Party once was, as Guardian writer John Harris puts it,

a party of power: pragmatic, flexible, supremely confident – and rarely moved to the extent of passion by much more than vague patriotism and a sense of their own importance.

 These days, it can’t decide whether it wants to compete with UKIP and the BNP for far-right votes or become a more modern Christian-Democratic party. Cameron is touting his unusually progressive attitude towards same sex marriage as a signpost towards a less toxic and more enlightened Nasty Party. It’s just a shame that on every other equality front the Coalition is rolling back the frontiers.

The most amusing part of this is that the PR-savvy potato-faced posh boy being ambushed is still way ahead of his party in terms of public popularity. He’s intent on following the route first trodden by Tony Blair, when opposing your own party was seen as a popular move.

 The other part of the equation is probably about the actual issue itself.

The less noisy but much more interesting part of the debate is about the institution and promotion of marriage and the last railings of those few Tories who still see England – oops, the UK – as a Christian nation drowning in a sea of secularism.

Look at the photograph (above) of the, er, highly diverse and representative group outside 10 Downing Street and you’ll see what I mean.

Regardless of these throwbacks, the vote in Parliament will go in favour of same sex marriage.

Today our lesbian and gay brothers and sisters will join us in another important step towards the more diverse, equal and tolerant society everyone (apart from the 21st Century barbarians and knuckle-draggers) wants to live in.

 And if that drives another nail into the coffins of religious fundamentalism and bigotry, so much the better. Two for the price of one.

Stephen Smith: writer

Rants, rambles and other assorted thoughts

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