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Sir Keir Starmer has said he is “pragmatic” about the question of public ownership of rail, energy and water companies, as conflicting statements by members of his shadow cabinet cast confusion over Labour’s stance on nationalisation.
The Labour leader indicated a retreat from a pledge he made when he was running for the party’s leadership in 2019 to support “common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water”.
Sir Keir was challenged about his view on nationalising utilities on Monday after shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves earlier said the policy was not compatible with the party’s new “fiscal rules” to control public spending.
He told reporters in Liverpool: “I take a pragmatic approach rather than an ideological one, I agree with what Rachel Reeves said this morning.
“Having come through the pandemic, it’s very important we have very, very clear priorities and that’s why we’ve set out fiscal rules already as an opposition.”
He added: “My mission is growth and underpinning that mission is a partnership arrangement with business, where the mission is set by an incoming Labour government and we empower business to work with us in delivering on that mission.”
Sir Keir then suggested that taking railways back into public ownership was not his preferred option, despite shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh telling the rail union Aslef in March that Labour was “totally committed” to the policy.
The Labour leader said: “I think what some of our mayors and metro mayors are doing with public transport is the right way forward – absolutely focused on keeping the price down and making sure there’s control over where things go, particularly buses…
“I absolutely understand the frustrations of everybody trying to use the rail service”.
Our brilliant Mayors are leading the way, putting passengers back at the heart of our public transport system.@UKLabour is committed to public ownership of rail and putting the public back in control of our bus network to drive down prices, improve services and meet net zero. https://t.co/nUbQiJFowA
— Louise Haigh (@LouHaigh) July 25, 2022
However, Sir Keir later indicated Labour would stick to plans to nationalise the railways, telling the Mirror: “Rail is probably different from the others because so much of our rail is already in public ownership.
“That is what I mean about not being ideological about it.
“Pragmatically, that is the situation, and it’s going to be the situation for some time to come.”
Ms Haigh later restated her view of her party’s position, tweeting: “@UKLabour is committed to public ownership of rail and putting the public back in control of our bus network to drive down prices, improve services and meet net zero”.
This was retweeted by Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner, indicating her support of the policy.
Middlesbrough’s Labour MP Andy McDonald tweeted: “Rail will be nationalised under a Labour Government.
“The position of the Labour Party has been confirmed.
“We cannot go on underwriting privately owned train operating companies taking our money to pay out to shareholders or ship back to state owned transport companies abroad”.
It came as the Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham hailed the rejection of a legal challenge to his decision to bring bus services across northern England under public control.
Ms Reeves earlier said commitments by Labour to nationalise rail, energy or water were part of a manifesto in 2019 that “secured our worst results since 1935” and had been “scrapped”.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Within our fiscal rules, to be spending billions of pounds on nationalising things, that just doesn’t stack up against our fiscal rules.”
The TUC’s Affordable Energy Plan would keep bills down by:
✅ Ending shareholder dividends, making more money available to cut bills✅ Unlocking incentives to make homes energy efficient✅ Enabling pricing structures with much lower costs for basic energy needs
— Trades Union Congress (@The_TUC) July 25, 2022
Meanwhile, the TUC called for public ownership of energy companies.
The federation of trade unions said: “Taking the Big Five energy retail firms into public ownership would cost just £2.85 billion.
“Since June 2021, the UK Government has spent £2.7 billion bailing out 28 energy companies that collapsed.
“It’s time to lift the burden of failed privatisation off families.”
Sir Keir used a speech in Liverpool on Monday to say the priority for the next Labour government would be to “reboot” the economy with a focus on “growth, growth, growth”.
Taking aim at the economic plans set out by the two Tory leadership hopefuls, the Labour leader said: “In one corner you have Rishi Sunak, the architect of the cost-of-living crisis.
“In the other you have Liz Truss, the latest graduate from the school of magic money tree economics”.
His visit to Liverpool came as the two contenders in the Conservative leadership contest prepared to face off in a televised BBC debate on Monday evening.
Sir Keir said the contrast between Labour’s approach and “the Conservative competition to waste more of your money could not be starker”, and hit out at the “Thatcherite cosplay on display” in the debate.
“You will see a clear contrast between my Labour Party and the Thatcherite cosplay on display tonight.
“The difference between a Labour Party ready to take Britain forward, and a Tory party that wants to take us back to the past,” he said.
“With me, with Rachel Reeves, you will always get sound finances, careful spending, strong, secure and fair growth.
“There will be no magic money tree economics with us.”
Sir Keir set out his plans for an industrial strategy council, which he said would be placed on a statutory footing as a “permanent part of the landscape that sets out our strategic national priorities that go beyond the political cycle, brings in the expertise of business, science and unions, (and) hold us to account for our decisions”.