Rail Privatisation Errors Foreseen in 1990

Interview with Jimmy Knapp (March 1990)

(General Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen)

Knapp,[A] who died in 2001, very accurately forecast all of the things that would go wrong with the Tory scheme for Privatisation.  A scheme that New Labour were too timid to oppose when they got elected in 1997.

In 1990, there was good hope that Labour under Kinnock would win the next election.  Sadly, John Major turned around Tory fortunes by offering a brand of One-Nation Toryism that has since been abandoned.  Kinnock resigned and was replaced by John Smith, who tragically died two years later.  Blair took over and discarded most Labour Party economic policies.  He advanced only the social agenda, the values that Labour shared with the Liberal Democrats.]

L&TUR.  Labour’s transport proposals are set out in Moving Britain Into the 1990s. In your opinion are they adequate to deal with the problems facing British Rail?

JK Yes. I think Labour’s transport policy recognises the need for major capital investment in new infrastructure. It recognises the fact that the transport infrastructure in its totality (not only the railways, but airports and motorways) is under severe strain. And I think the policy is responsive to the public demand for higher levels of capital investment and new infrastructure to deal with those problems. One of the problems with the present government’s policy is that it is clearly hooked on market forces being the only answer; but you can never solve the problems of the transport infrastructure in the country, and the needs of the railways, by market forces alone, and I think Labour’s policy defines a clear alternative, namely, that there is a role for public expenditure to play in paving the way for the type of major infrastructure projects that we need.

The policy recognises the need to restore the cuts in public service obligation grants to the railways which would have the immediate and short term effect of creating a climate and an ability to meet the standard of service that people expect. So, that is recognised, and that would be a quick and popular change in my view, and a clear alternative to what the government is doing. I think we have now got the best transport policy document since 1947. The 1947 policy was very progressive in its time in creating the maximum co-ordination, integration and cross support, and I believe that the policy of the ’90s has got the feel of using the resources that we have in the best interests of the nation as a whole, and is progressive in that sense. So I am very optimistic about it.

L&TUR The introduction of the market into British Rail’s performance, it seems to me, leads inevitably towards privatisation. What do you think should be the main plank in the labour movement’s campaign against privatisation of BR?

JK I think the public will recognise that the proposal to privatise is based on sheer political ideology, and I don’t think the electorate will be convinced that it is in their interest to privatise. It will be viewed as a piece of political dogma. Concern will emerge over electricity privatisation, and the public will view railway privatisation in the light of that concern. It is no accident that the government have halted their privatisation programme at that point and that there are no plans between now and the next general election to carry on from where they are now.

L&TUR And you reckon they wouldn’t put it in a manifesto …

JK I think they will. The Conservative party are like political junkies. They are hooked on their own ideology and they will need another fix, so to speak, to keep them going. But I think the main arguments against privatisation of the railways are the certainty that there would be closure of lines in rural areas; and that private companies would be very unlikely to sustain the level of late night services, weekend services and cross-country services that we have got at the moment. In addition to that the operational and technical problems associated with railway privatisation are quite horrendous. Devising an operational plan for example, that would allow competing companies to run over the same infrastructure would be horrendous.

L&TUR You don’t think Labour’s policy of giving responsibility for transport to regional assemblies might produce a certain lack of co-ordination that could encourage some of the arguments for privatisation, as it were, by the back door? You don’t have any worries about that?

JK No. If the policy is applied in a socialist spirit in the sense of producing the best possible overall strategy for any given region, and in the best interests of that community, then I think it can be a positive move. With the abolition of the metropolitan counties and the GLC we lost the ability to take a strategic overview of the needs of a geographical area of that kind, and I think people have lost out as a result of that. When then was a link between the metropolitan county set-up and the Passenger Transport Executives elected councillors were able to shape policy alongside the wishes of the voters. The regional assembly idea will be a positive move because it can provide a strategic overview of the needs of that particular region. If this is allied to a progressive central government policy of providing a proper level of public support for major capital investment projects, then I think it will work.

L&TUR The party’s policy places some emphasis on consumer interests. Do you see any potential conflict between the interests of the travelling public and the transport unions?

JK No, not at all. The way Tory government policy has developed over the past ten years has, in my view, thrown public transport workers and the travelling public on to the same side of the argument. They are all suffering from the same disease of under-investment. That means low wages and pressures on conditions for the workforce, and high fares, overcrowding and congestion for the travelling public. And it came. across in the rail strikes of 1989 that the public perceived the situation in the way that I have described, as a common disease affecting everybody, and that is why all the predictable arguments used by the government backfired on them. The last two or three years in particular have indicated that there is a great deal of common ground between the workforce and the people that use the industry they work in.

L&TUR The party seems to be keen on involving consumers in various services – housing, for example. How do you think that transport users can be involved in the decision-making process?

JK There is a possibility of linking that in with the question of regional assemblies that we were talking about earlier. You are going to have a democratically-elected authority that will be taking a strategic view of their region. Part of that policy-making process would be to consult all the interested parties like trade unions and consumer groups.

I think the Transport Users’ Consultative Committees that exist at the moment, for example, could be strengthened and widened to encompass all forms of transport (they only deal with railways at the moment). If the legislation that created those was extended, they could become an integral part of the consultation process that I think should evolve with the creation of regional assemblies. There was a half-hearted attempt in 1978 during the last Labour government when county councils were charged with the responsibility of producing transport plans, and a part of that legislation was saying to them that they should consult – though some of them didn’t make much of an attempt. So I think it is possible, given the move towards regional devolution, to develop that type of consultation alongside it.

L&TUR Let us turn now to the Channel Tunnel, which has become topical again following the recent bickering between the banks and the contractors. Are you confident that it will go ahead as planned?

JK Yes I am. But what has recently been happening illustrates the folly of believing that the free market is adequate to sustain a project of that magnitude. We will not get the infrastructure that we need to serve the tunnel for the very same reason. Yes, it will be built, but the danger for Britain is that we will not have the high speed rail links that will connect us up with the developing high speed network in western Europe. We will become a poor, offshore relation of the mainland unless we get that right. Bob Reid, in his deathbed conversion spoke out about the need for government support for infrastructure of hat kind, otherwise we become the poor ·elations of Europe. That has got to be the big argument for us. I think Labour .an unite the country behind the argument that the proper infrastructure has to be provided, east, west, north and south.

L&TUR You would obviously argue against privatisation of the railways?

JK Oh yes. John Prescott quite rightly last week called for the abolition ,f section 42 of the Channel Tunnel Act, he section that lays down that no public money shall be involved in it. I totally support Prescott’s call, and I think it is a good lead for the Labour party because it is a view that can unite the country behind the argument that says we need an infrastructure that can serve the whole country – and that if we don’t get it industry will be going to northern France, and business, commerce and finance will be going to Frankfurt. It won’t be an argument about whether an industrialist sets up in Kent or Lancashire, but about whether he sets up in the UK or France or Holland. I am much more concerned about that than about the actual physical act of building the Tunnel, because that will happen.

L&TUR Would you like to say something about open stations and driver-only operated trains?

JK The Union’s view of driver-only operated trains is that we are not against it as a principle, as a method, but we feel that there should be some on-train presence which gives reassurance to the person travelling, as well as being able to provide a commercial service by way of revenue protection, and looking after the general comfort of the passengers. As regards open stations, the problem is that you can encompass the revenue elements of that by having an on-train presence. If you have no on-train presence and you have no one on the barriers at the stations, how do you protect your revenue? If you are going to have open stations, you must balance that by some on-train presence which deals with the revenue side of it.

The other problem with open stations is that I don’t think the public likes to see station platforms late at night devoid of any presence at all. The public likes to see people in railway uniforms on the station doing a job in that way. Also, the fear of women travelling alone late at night is a perfectly genuine fear. So we have to be careful that we don’t leave the system devoid of staff to the degree that the public lose that service and support that I think they want.

L&TUR According to a report in the London Evening Standard a single union for all transport workers looks increasingly likely. What will be the benefits of such a union both for the workers and the travelling public?

JK As far as the members of the unions are concerned, we’ve reached a point in history now where we have to consider the total resources that we’ve got and how they can best be used in the interests of the people that we represent. I think the time is right for developing closer working relationships between unions, and we have to try and stimulate a positive debate about how we use our resources in the future in a joint way.

The British trade union movement will have to find the way forward through mergers and amalgamations much more in the next decade than it’s ever done. I think there will be benefits for the membership in the sense that we will be able to sustain and improve the work that we do by maximising the use of resources through closer working relationships, possibly leading to mergers. There is a whole range of activities such as trade union education, back-up for negotiations and research that I believe can be better sustained and developed under a closer working arrangement. It is the job of people like me to at least stimulate a debate on this and get rank and file members talking about it.

L&TUR Are the prospects as far advanced as the report in the Standard suggests?

JK No, I think that report is very optimistic. There is a long road to travel before you would reach the point outlined in that document, however, the part about the merger with the National Union of Seamen is very definite; all things being equal, that will probably be concluded by August of this year.

L&TUR The larger and stronger unions that would result from these mergers would clearly not be in the interests of the Tory government, which has sought to weaken the trade union movement over the last ten years. How do you think the Labour party would react to these new and larger unions, and, given the developments in policy regarding the anti-trade union legislation, are you happy with the party’s attitude to the trade unions at the present time?

JK We have got to show a bit of pragmatism over the next couple of years in the sense that it would be political suicide, in my view, to repeal that part of the current legislation which deals with ballots before strikes. We have to make a commitment that that facility will remain – in a very different form, I might add. We don’t want threatening questions on ballot papers, e.g., if you vote Yes you will be in breach of your contract of employment. We do want facilities for the unions to present their case, in a ballot situation, in a proper manner. And most importantly in that area there ought to be legal protection against workers being sacked for taking industrial action following a democratically run ballot.

L&TUR That is one of the main planks of the present employment bill going through Parliament…

JK Yes, but they always could be. Murdoch sacked 5000 print workers, and Parker threatened the same against drivers in the railway industry in 1982. So we have to deliver protection for people who take action, and it should be illegal for an employer to sack a worker who has taken industrial action in that context. We should not underestimate either – and I think this is where the party policy has got it right – the extent to which the rights of individual workers have been eroded during the past ten years, whether it is unfair dismissal, maternity leave, health and safety at work. The rights of the individual at the workplace, as opposed to the collective rights of the union, have been severely attacked, and I think we should present a positive platform of restoring individual rights in the way that is being proposed. So I think we have to come to terms with things in a way that we might not have contemplated ten or fifteen years ago. If you are going to accept strike ballots enshrined in law, you have to accept the responsibilities that go along with that.

L&TUR There seems to be a dilemma in the party about whether to get rid of most of the trade union legislation (except balloting), or to keep it all and make very small changes. The argument is that the legislation as a whole is so closely interconnected that you could pick a few bits out of it such as balloting, but retain very little else. Do you see this as a problem for the party?

JK No. I think we should start again, in the sense that we need to sweep away most of what is there and replace the legislation with more positive rights for people at the workplace. The law on so-called secondary action needs to be redefined and rewritten, and the legislation on compulsory postal balloting needs to be looked at. There is no doubt in my mind that the most democratic form of voting is the workplace ballot, which, if properly conducted, will give you the highest level of participation.  So I think we need to start again m all those areas.

L&TUR Would you agree with the new proposal which is being debated in the party of enshrining positive rights  for trade unions rather than this whole system of immunities. Ron Leighton makes a strong case for that approach -would you agree with it?

JK I think the old system of immunities was quite adequate, and I think we need to go back to it. We don’t need a charter of positive rights in that sense – I think that is more relevant to the individual worker and what they should be entitled to expect: what protection they have got against unfair dismissal, the things I was talking about a couple of minutes ago.

L&TUR Could we move on now to the position of the unions within the party? What would your reaction be to the abolition of the block vote, for example?

JK Total opposition to it being abolished. I think it would be unjustified, and a totally wrong approach to take. My union, and I personally, would see the realistic way to deal with that question as an examination of how you can adjust the balance to an acceptable level between the percentage of voting prevalent in the block vote at the moment, and the percentage that is vested in the constituency labour parties. I think the imbalance is too wide, and I think that is the proper and sensible area of discussion that people could get into in a positive way. I don’t know what the exact figures are at the moment – it is about 90% to 10% or something – but I would certainly be willing to get involved in that type of debate. Those who criticise us would see that as a positive recognition that we can make sensible adjustments to meet the reality of the situation.

But to contemplate abolishing the block vote completely would be a very wrong step to take. How can you argue, on the one hand, for the retention of union political funds – for the payment of a levy to give you a voice by way of sponsored MPs, etc to preserve a political choice. What we were saying to people in those campaigns to preserve political funds, was that our opponents were out to destroy the Labour Party, thereby removing any real choice in the future and people accepted that argument.

L&TUR Once you start opening up questions about the existence of the political levy, the labour movement as we know it no longer exists …

JK That’s right. I would like to see the individual membership of the part growing. We ought to be able to amass a million members, as we had thirty years ago. It ought not to be beyond us.  And that, in itself, would begin to adjust things a bit.

[Labour did indeed peak at a million members around 1950.[B]  It declined from this, but was over 600,000 individual members in the 1970s.  Only then did it fall sharply, with a minor recover under Tony Blair that was followed by an even worse slump. 

[The recovery under Corbyn is still below what we had in the 1970s.  But this is part of a general decline in social participation.  The Tories had over three million members in the 1950s.[C]  In 2013 they had an estimated 134,000, most of them very old.]

1 Knapp graph

L&TUR The question of abolition of the block vote may be on the agenda of this year’s party conference. Could you see it causing a lot of trouble for the party if they proceeded along the lines of abolition?

JK I don’t think we should be contemplating an unnecessary constitutional squabble because I think there would be a reaction against abolition across a broad political spectrum. It would not just be the left of the trade union movement that would be making the sort of points I have been making. The concern that would be aroused would go much broader than that.

L&TUR Given that the Tories are arguing powerfully that the party is dominated by the trade unions, and that you yourself would like to see a shift in the balance of power between the unions and the constituency parties to make it reflect the membership more accurately, how do you see the future relation between the trade unions and the party? How can the unions continue to have a substantial input, not only into party policy, but into all areas of the party – e.g. how can they ensure that more of their members play a more active role within the party?

JK Well, we can never live without each other. As Jack Jones put it, there can be rows in the marriage, but we will never get divorced. I would vigorously resist any suggestion of that happening. I think there is a case for looking at the way we make policy, since that is what the argument is about. It may be that the Policy Review Committee is the first sign of a change in the way policy is shaped. It may be that this idea of policy commissions which could involve different strands of the party’s membership is something we need to think about developing. I believe, too, that we have to be seen consulting our members more in some of the areas of policy that are being developed at the moment. I am not quite sure how you would go about it, but where there’s a will there’s a way.

L&TUR One gets the impression at the moment that policy is often made on the hoof – I’m thinking of the way the recent policy towards the closed shop was adopted. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that I think it was seen not to be done in an open way that could be talked about by people. Would commissions not be seen to be ‘behind closed doors’ as well? The parliamentary party does not seem to be able to take on board all the different views and hammer out the policy, and the differences come up in parliament, as we have seen. Is there any more open way it could be  done, safely, without giving ammunition to the other side?

JK The Policy Review Committees, the document that emerged at last year’s conference, emerged in a way that was different from years gone by, where you had six or seven working groups, I think all of whom had a trade union representative. As far as I am aware it was the first time that this had happened. It seems to me that the policy commission’s idea · is a way of

formalising that; it would allow that type of involvement, and would be seen by everybody that policy was emerging in that sort of way – subject at the end of the day to the overall authority of the National Executive Committee and the conference itself.


This article appeared in March 1990, in Issue 16 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.

[A] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimmy_Knapp

[B] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labour_Party_(UK)#Membership_and_registered_supporters

[C] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservative_Party_(UK)#Membership