What's the story?
When I fell in love with a train
My parents work for the NHS and I’ve always loved public services – my local library, park, swimming pool – but when I was growing up, I didn’t think about them very much.
10 years ago, I moved to Bristol. There was a fantastic local train service on the Severn Beach line near my house. It seemed like the best way to get around. Other people thought so too - commuters and students, parents and grandparents, bikes and pushchairs all mingled on their way through the city. It was a friendly, efficient service. But it was very infrequent - if you missed the train, you could be waiting an hour and a half!
I got involved in the ‘Friends of Suburban Bristol Railways’ where I met my good friend Julie Boston, who’d been running the group for years. When Bristol City Council launched a consultation on its budget, we launched a campaign for a more frequent service. 561 of our fellow passengers sent our yellow postcards to the council, asking for an extra train. Armed with Julie’s flapjacks and giant placards, we turned up at council meetings, phoned up First Group, got in the local media. In the end, we won! An extra train – a 100% increase in passengers – there are well over 1 million journeys on the line every year.
Passengers vs privatisation
Yet despite this victory, I was starting to wonder about our privatised railway. In my next job I worked as a campaigner, lobbying the government for better buses and trains. Rural buses were being cut so people couldn’t get to the shops or visit family and friends. Bus fares were rising. Train fares were out of control. Carriages were packed. New stations weren’t being opened.
I had a hunch that privatisation was part of the problem, not the solution – yet it seemed like an unmentionable word. Government, thinktanks, transport companies didn’t want to talk about it.
Joining the dots
When the coalition government decided to privatise the NHS and sell off the Royal Mail. I started to join the dots. Whenever services were privatised, it seemed like costs went up, quality went down and accountability went out of the window.
The whole idea of privatisation didn’t make sense to me. Public services were natural monopolies and they needed to work for people, not profit. Wasn’t there academic evidence to back this up? And what about the fact that public ownership is hugely popular? Most of us want to see public services run for people not profit – yet politicians ignored most of us. Why?
The government was talking about ‘opening up’ public services but this generally simply meant opening the door to private companies. Some of the politicians involved – like Oliver Letwin and Francis Maude - had been dreaming of ‘privatising the world’ since the 1980s. All their dreams were coming true. They had done a rebrand – and maybe we needed to as well.
I wanted to make the case for public ownership. Not ‘going back to the 1970s’ but going forwards to a better future. Creating and defending public services that are there to meet our needs and build a more civilised society. Public services that bring people together and put people first – whether that’s on a train, at school or in a hospital room.
We Own It
In 2013, We Own It was born. It started with me in my bedroom on my laptop, with an idea. Our first meeting was in my living room with a bunch of friends. Volunteers started to get involved. I created an advisory group of academics, thinkers, unions and journalists to link us in with other organisations. Of course there are lots of campaigns against privatisation. The idea was to add to the debate, support these campaigns and join the dots, not duplicate.
Today we have a small team of staff and volunteers, over 45,000 people signed up to the campaign, and we’re making real progress. So far we’ve:
- Won campaign victories, helping to stop privatisation of Network Rail and the Land Registry
- Made the case that selling off profitable public assets doesn’t make sense – in just 10 years’ time we’ll be losing money on the Royal Mail sale
- Got our message out in the media, appearing on Channel 4 News, Sky News, Radio 4 and in the Mirror, Guardian and Financial Times
- Carried out new polling – on buses, parks and outsourcing - to show that people want transparency, accountability and public ownership
Since I was born, for more than 30 years, we’ve been told myths about privatisation. They’re not true. It's going to take some time to win the debate but that’s our aim – to show that public services of all kinds must be run for people not profit. Stakeholders, not shareholders.
We’re just at the beginning of the adventure. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.