Tribune leader, 18 October 1991
Like the Citizens’ Charter before it, John Major’s long, boring speech at Tory Party conference last week will soon be forgotten. Indeed, it is already difficult to remember exactly what it was about – apart, of course, from the boy from Brixton made good. Just about the only bit of policy that sticks in the mind is the pledge not to privatise the National Health Service, and it does so only because Tory party managers have spent so much time repeating in an attempt to wrest the initiative on health from Labour.
They are unlikely to succeed. Perhaps the Tories do not intend to float hospitals on the stock market. But their record of starving the NHS of resources suggests that they are quite happy to see it turned into a safety – net service used only by those who cannot afford to go private: in that sense, Labour has been quite right to accuse them of wishing to privatise health care. Equally important, their current programme of introducing market forces into the NHS shows that they are more worried about the cost of the service to the taxpayer than its quality to the patient. Even if that is not, strictly speaking, privatisation (though it could all too easily be a prelude to it), it is commercialisation, an introduction of the ethics of private enterprise to a sphere in which most voters do not wish to see them.
The NHS is a potential election – winning issue for Labour: the party should shun the advice of those now suggesting that it should let up in its assault. But it will not be enough simply to attack the Tories. In the period between now and the election, Labour must make its positive alternatives to Tory policies on the NHS much clearer and much more detailed.
On the wrong track
Two events in the past fortnight have illustrated perfectly how little John Major’s 11 months in office have changed Tory policy on the railways.
First, Malcolm Rifkind announced last week that the high-speed rail link from the Channel Tunnel to London would not, after all, pass through Tory south- east London but would instead be diverted through Labour east London. The change means that the completion date for the line, already laughably distant by continental standards, is put off to 2002 at the earliest — four years after the tunnel opens. British Rail, its plans in tatters, was understandably outraged.
Then, this week, BR announced fare increases of roughly double the rate of inflation (except, that is, on routes which Mr Major believes offer a poor service, including that from King’s Cross to his own constituency). The reason is simple. The government, alone in Europe, wants to privatise the railway system and, alone in Europe, is reducing its subsidies while BR, its revenue hit by recession, does not want to cut its investment programme. BR’s only option is to increase fares. The increase will drive more and more passengers into using the private motor car – leading to more pollution, more traffic jams and, unless there is a change of government, more fare increases next year.
Everywhere else in Europe, the railway has been recognised as worthy of massive subsidy and investment on any number of economic and environmental grounds. Here, it is starved of cash and developed only half- heartedly and belatedly. The British railway system, once the best in the world, is now one of the worst in Europe. While the Tories remain in charge, it can only fall further behind.