Don't sell out the Tube

A public-private partnership - not privatisation - is the solution to London Underground's problems, says Glenda Jackson
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The Independent Online
If the Conservative Party loses the next election, it will be for many reasons: rises in tax, and the lies that accompanied them; weakness on law and order; the rundown of our schools and health services. But in London, a crucial battleground, there is another issue set to deal a heavy blow to the Tories' electoral fortunes: Tube privatisation.

It is important to understand what Tube privatisation is not. It is not, as ministers pretend, an imaginative attempt to introduce new funding into an ageing system. The Conservatives did not stumble into power yesterday, they did so 18 years ago. Were privatisation the answer, London Underground would already be privatised. John Major's rushing where even Thatcher feared to tread indicates desperation, not inspiration.

His desperation is twofold. First, insufficient growth has been generated to support a network used daily by two-and-a-half million Londoners, most of whom vote. Second, there is Major's need to placate those in his party clamouring for a dose of the old-time privatisation religion. Major is trapped between the rock of a deeply unpopular policy, and the hard place of the radical Tory right.

But the decision to reach for the zero option of outright privatisation reveals more than just the desperation of an increasingly embattled leader. It also reveals how the Conservative policy-making machine has reached the end of the line. To get to grips with London Underground's problems it is important to face some hard facts.

First, they will not be tackled by hurling limitless amounts of money around the network. Resources will be tight whoever is in power. The key is to ensure funding targets those areas of the system where it is most needed, and can be most effective. That is why when in government our priority will be to join with the private sector in channelling investment towards the core of the network, where the collapsing embankments, ageing signalling and crumbling tunnels now present a very real threat to the integrity of the system. Conservative ministers reject this approach and conjure up ever grander visions. But, as ever, their promises are undermined by their record. In 18 years since they were elected, not a single new major infrastructure project has been completed on the network. And it is no coincidence that the last new project, the Jubilee Line, opened on 1 May, 1979, two days before Thatcher took office.

Second, the Tube still suffers from significant waste and inefficiency. Much of this is the result of ministerial incompetence, as underlined by the Crossrail fiasco, which saw pounds 126m squandered on a project that never left the drawing board. There are also doubts about whether the current methods of financing provide sufficient stability for the Underground to make best use of its available resources. Hence our commitment to a complete review of financing.

Again, ministers reject this option, and in doing so they underline how a fear of change can be so much more costly than change itself.

No government can tackle the problems facing the Tube on its own. Real improvements can only be made through securing fresh investment from sources other than the already hard-pressed taxpayer and commuter. That is why we are committed to securing a genuine partnership between government and business.

The Conservatives have never been able to get to grips with the concept of private financing. Partly that is because as a Labour initiative their instinctive reaction is to oppose it. For today's Tory party, raised at the shrine of market forces, and schooled in the evils of "big government", the idea of employer and employee, or state and business, working together is anathema. So great is the Government's opposition to such a partnership that Chancellor Kenneth Clarke recently warned London businesses to "stop rattling the can" for the Underground.

But if the Tories recoil in horror at the concept of cooperation, that is their problem. London businesses have shown their keenness to seek a solution to London's transport crisis. And we intend to work with them, to start to put London Underground back on track.

The Evening Standard described John Major's privatisation plans for the Tube as the "the longest suicide note in history". That underestimates the desperation with which he will fight to stay in Downing Street. But if Tube privatisation does play a part in John Major's downfall, it may turn out to be the saviour of London's transport system after all.

The author is MP for Hampstead and a Labour spokesman on transport.