OPINION: Government has lost PR battle over railways

At the first Labour Cabinet meeting for two decades Tony Blair

spelled out his vision for the future. He told the excited new Ministers

that in future they should call him 'Tony' and that transport was not a

priority.



Much to the relief of current health secretary Alan Milburn, the state

of our railways has now overtaken hospitals as the number one political

issue of the day and Tony has had to re-write history.



He told viewers of the BBC's Breakfast with Frost programme on Sunday

that to have renationalised the railways after his first election

victory would have faced a storm of criticism. Yes, he would have ...

from the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, the very same papers that

attacked Byers for putting Railtrack into administration. From the rest

of the nation there would have been three hearty cheers.



Peter Hain, the foreign affairs minister who only remains in his job

because he attacks Gordon Brown, even used the failure to sort out the

trains in the first term to criticise the decision of Brown to keep the

lid on spending.



It seems almost inconceivable that the Government could have lost the PR

battle over the railways, but that is exactly what they have done.



Privatisation of the trains by the Tories was the biggest botch-up

imaginable. It wasn't even proper privatisation because the taxpayer

continued to pour billions of pounds into the coffers of Railtrack and

its shareholders, only to see the trains get worse. Health and safety

went out of the window, with the inevitable and tragic loss of life, yet

still the Government floundered about.



The decision to sack John Prescott and replace him with the

more-Blairite-than-Blair Stephen Byers didn't make much difference

either. Byers floundered in the House of Commons when he should have

been basking in the glory as the man who finally put the nail into the

coffin of the hated Railtrack.



It has been reported that a massive 84 per cent of Labour voters think

the Government is screwing up transport, so it was no surprise to see

Blair giving up his Sunday swim at Chequers to drive to the BBC to

appear with Frost. Frost usually approaches him, but Blair was desperate

to get on the programme, which guarantees massive coverage.



Despite the Royal drinking and drugs binge, Blair duly delivered his

message and made all the news bulletins. He told us that it would take

years to sort out the mess but there would be a ten-year plan. Blair was

desperate to lower expectations, which he did and he also knows that to

just promise more cash would have no immediate effect.



It was left to the recently appointed head of the 'Strategic Rail

Authority' Richard Bowker to launch the latest plan to put the trains

'back on track' the next day. Bowker is no pinstriped City type and even

went to Downing Street without a tie. Here was a man who has no

connection with the past rail failures and clearly isn't a slippery

politician. He was just an ordinary bloke who you could put your trust

in. Bowker is also no fool when it comes to the media. There was no

'new' money to announce but the plan made sense and it was all good

PR.



Labour may be screwing up on transport but they are still miles ahead in

the polls and that's because there is still no real opposition. Shadow

transport secretary Theresa May popped up on TV to tell us that we

needed more private money for the trains. But who takes any notice of

the party that wrecked the railways in the first place?



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