Labour's plan to break up the bus cartel lacks clarity


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No one in Britain much under the age of 40 can recall a time when bus services were owned by the state and run as a public service with little reference to profitability. Presumably, unless he was even more precocious than we thought, even Ed Miliband can have but a dim recollection of such a world. In any case, Mr Miliband’s plan to break up the bus gang run by the likes of Stagecoach and First Group is not driven by nostalgia for the good old days so much as a simple appeal to voters’  prejudices, which are firmly hostile to privatised utilities.

Whether we all want to get on board the Milibus or not – and the details of his plan have not been entirely worked out – it does fall into an emerging Labour theme. Like the rail companies and the energy suppliers, like the continual and slightly synthetic rage against Tory “privatisation” of the NHS, and like rent controls, Labour wants to regulate markets to achieve greater social justice. Nothing wrong with that, in principle, but it does mean a couple of things.

First, that the apparent practical drawbacks in Labour’s policies must be smoothed out when they come to be implemented. Second, and more potently, that the companies concerned will try to “game” the system in order to evade their new responsibilities – as with the energy utilities, some of whom may have postponed or minimised reductions in tariffs in anticipation of Labour’s freeze. Either way, such adventures as the Milibus usually fall victim to the law of unintended consequences. On public transport, in particular, Labour seems to be promising the travelling public something of a mystery tour.