Who Led the Railwaymen Up the Garden?

The railwaymen are sure about Nationalisation. They are saying that it has not done them any good. Some are saying that it has not done them any good. Some even say that conditions are worse than they would be if the railway companies were still in control. Our authority for this is the Editor of the “Railway Review,” the journal of the National Union of Railwaymen. In an editorial (27.7.1951) he contributes an article entitled “Let’s Get It Straight! ” We give below some extracts from it:

“Before the nationalisation of transport the workers anticipated certain favourable changes which they thought would be wrought almost immediately after the celebrations for nationalisation came to an end. After three and a-half years it seems to the man on the job that no favourable changes have taken place. Improvements in wages, working conditions and a relative responsibility in the running of the industry have just not materialised. On some counts there is a feeling that there has been a deterioration in standards instead of an improvement.
“Nationalised transport is being operated on capitalist patterns, with capitalist forms of accountancy, with capitalist conceptions of industrial organisation. Any changes which have been introduced could well have been made by the private owners of transport undertakings. In fact it is true to say, whether we like it or not, that a number of private enterprise firms provide better wages and conditions than those obtaining generally in nationalised transport.”

The extracts quoted above clearly establish that the railwaymen feel that nationalisation has been a swindle. They expected great things and three and a half years’ experience have been sufficient to prove the expectation baseless. The Editor of the “Railway Review” does not think them wrong; he agrees with their view and sets himself the task of discovering how the Nationalisation Act and the organisation it set up should be altered in order to make things better. He writes:

“We do not think that better wages and conditions and a real share in the running of the industry are objectives which can be expected from the present structure of nationalisation. That is not in the Act. The changes we desire, then, must be placed in the Act.”

His principal suggestion is that the railway workers “must be given the legal right to better wages and conditions and a share in management,” and that as this is barred by the obligation to make sufficient profit to pay the fixed rates of compensation to the railway shareholders, then the Government should cut down “this extravagant treatment of the former transport owners.”

As socialists we have quite a number of things to say about this. First of all what has the Editor of the “Railway Review” to say about his own responsibility and that of the officials of the National Union of Railwaymen? The railwaymen did not just happen to think that transport nationalisation might be a good thing for them; for years they were persuaded by their officials that nationalisation was the remedy they needed. And they were led to think by the same officials that the Act of 1947 was deserving of support. What excuse have these officials for coming along three and a half years later and saying that the clauses of the Act are at fault? Didn’t they read the Act when it was being discussed in Parliament? Didn’t they know what it contained and what it aimed to do? As a matter of probability they doubtless did read it, but their approach was the same sloppy, muddle- headed one that has characterised the Labour Party’s nationalisation propaganda for forty years. They read it but had not sufficient grasp of the problem to realise what nationalisation is, or how it works and for whose benefit. Ignorant both of the workings of Capitalism and of the principles of Socialism they could not see that nationalisation is State Capitalism, its aim being to provide transport for capitalist industry and commerce as cheap and efficient as possible, and that it differs from private Capitalism mainly in the fact that management is centralised and the capitalist investors receive their return in the form of Government-guaranteed interest on State bonds instead of in the form of dividends on shares. Yet they had ample information under their noses if they had known how to assimilate it. They could have studied the State Capitalist Post Office, or the State railways in a dozen countries in the world, including the Australian State railways with their history of embittered strikes and lock-outs under Labour Governments.

But now, instead of coming forward frankly admitting that nationalisation is bound to be a fraud for the workers and that they were at fault ever to have peddled the nostrum of nationalisation, we see the “Railway Review’s” Editor as one of the railwaymen’s “leaders,” persuading them to waste still more years trying to solve their problems by tinkering about with the Act—as if the Government which introduced the Act as part of the business of administering Capitalism would or could alter it into something non-capitalist and useful to the working class. And Test anyone should fall into the equally crude error of supposing that a Communist Government would or could do anything better, let us emphasise that in capitalist Russia where, incidentally, the Government bond-holders receive a much larger return than the taxed 3 per cent, paid to holders of British Government Transport Stock, the State railways arc required by law to make a profit, and there are all the familiar problems of fat salaries for the top officials and the operation of the services on capitalist commercial lines.

In raising the question of the amount of compensation paid year by year to former railway shareholders in accordance with the Nationalisation Act, the Editor of the “Railway Review” is equally open to criticism. Did he not know this at the time the railway workers were being told to celebrate the passing of the Act? Did he never realise that the whole idea of compensation by Government securities, as proclaimed by the Labour Party, was to get rid of dividends which depended on the amount of profit the railway companies were making year by year, and to replace them by a fixed payment which would go on indefinitely? If a railway company made no profit the shareholders would go without their dividends, and for many years certain classes of railway shares did in fact receive no dividends at all. But now, under nationalisation, the ex-shareholders (even including those who were getting no dividends) do not have to worry. Generally speaking they receive less than they would have got in a year of high railway profits, but they still receive their compensation even if the nationalised railways make no profit at all. The Government meets the payment and requires British Transport (as provided in the Act) to make good the deficit in later years.

If it mattered to the railway workers how much compensation is paid (and the Editor imagines that it does) why did he and the Union officials not have the elementary foresight to see that if they had delayed nationalisation until the railways were hit, as they were bound to be, by the revival of road transport, railway profits and share values would have fallen and the Government would then have secured nationalisation at about half the price they actually paid through nationalising in 1947?

In fact, however, it does not make any real difference to the railway workers as can be seen by looking at the treatment of the workers in a nationalised industry that habitually makes high profits. For nearly forty years the Post Office has made a big surplus, rising during the recent war to nearly £40 millions a year. Is the Editor so simple as to imagine that the P.M.G. under Labour Government ceases to resist Post Office workers’ claims for an adequate wage because the profit is big? It is true that British Transport uses the fact that the industry did not make enough profit to pay the ex-shareholders as an excuse for resisting wage claims, but it would resist them anyway. When the P.M.G. resists Post Office wage claims one of the arguments he uses is that their pay is not below the pay of railway workers, and former P.M.G.’s did just the same before the railways were nationalised.

While we are on the question of the failure of the railway union officials to show foresight one wonders why they did not at least put up a fight at the time of nationalisation to secure that railway workers were made civil servants and made entitled to non-contributory pensions like other civil servants.

When the S.P.G.B. was formed in 1904 one of its earliest warnings to railwaymen and other workers was to beware of the delusion that nationalisation is Socialism or can solve working-class problems. The warning was not heeded and the penalty has been the waste of precious years campaigning for something worthless. Now the union officials, instead of at long last recognising the truth of the S.P.G.B. claim that only Socialism can emancipate the working class, are launching another campaign, this time to try to amend the Act that was the product of the first campaign. What the railwaymen should do is to stop being led up the garden. They should think for themselves—about Socialism.


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