‘Are Trams Socialist?’ And Other Stories.

Not my title, though I love it. It’s a forthcoming book from Christian Wolmar, the transport policy expert who was speaking yesterday at a meeting to consider the future of transport.

Perhaps Wolmar’s central point was to observe that we do not have a transport policy.  Of course, there is a Minister with a brief for transport, but that scarcely amounts to a policy. Instead we have a patchwork of responses to transport pressures, with the loud voices of lobby groups often trumping a rational ordering of priorities.  But even a notional ‘rational ordering of priorities’ is a technocrat’s phrase to describe something that is deeply political, and at many levels.  ‘Are Trams Socialist?’ Whisper it, but they probably are.  (That’s my inference, by the way. Wolmar briefly plugged his book, but otherwise failed to expand on the provocative title.)

Even cars are socialist, insofar as a car is useless without roads, and all the state planning inherent in making the private motor car, and lorry, and bus a functional vehicle, rather than simply a piece of clever engineering with little purpose.  Visit any country with a barely competent state, even if it is rich, and what you’ll find is that people live in grand gated compounds set on streets of bare earth, on which only the most rugged of all terrain vehicles can run adequately.  Visitors to, say, Britain from such countries often marvel at the existence of proper roads, with rules that drivers mostly obey.  But such miracles of infrastructure have to be planned and paid for.

But a transport policy requires more than simply the maintenance of existing infrastructure, and its expansion or renewal as times change.

So what might a transport policy look like?  Wolmar asked us to think about transport needs and pressures today, and in twenty years time, and to consider those things which impact, directly or indirectly, on transport needs.  To help us along, he placed it all in the context of the history of transport.

This context matters.  The notion of a ‘transport policy’ is meaningless before the industrial revolution.  Complex urban societies need transport networks to move goods and people.  But transport is also cultural.  And cultures change.

One of Wolmar’s assumptions is that there are more or less objective pressures that will drive change.  These include technological innovation, and climate change.

But I’d suggest that cultural factors are at least as important.  Wolmar noted the declining interest in private cars amongst the young, but he didn’t offer a suggestion as to why that might be.

We are still living in an era of car culture in ‘the west’.  The private car was the prime symbol of the 20th Century – the American Century.  From Fordist production lines as the model for consumer capitalism, to the ‘dream’ of a sprawling home in the suburbs with a gleaming Cadillac in the garage, to the teenager driving on an open road listening to rock and roll on the radio, this was an aspirational lifestyle, and one which seemed open to all at a time of generally rising affluence.

There are plenty of people who still buy this, but in a Top Gear-ish, petrolhead kind of a way.  It’s an ‘FU individualism’ which is actually deeply conformist.  As Margaret Thatcher once said, ‘no man over thirty should be on a bus’.  Liverpool, not the former PM’s greatest fans, dubbed the bus, the ‘loser cruiser’.  These prejudices remain tenacious.

But at a time of insecure housing tenure and falling levels of home ownership, in which some people now sleep in their cars, perhaps the bus is no longer the ‘loser cruiser’ after all?  The car is losing its glamour.

I went to Hong Kong in the mid-1990s.  There were mobile phones around in those days, but they were the size of bricks, and I didn’t have one.  So what struck me about Hong Kong was that, as I expressed it at the time, “no one had a car, and everyone had a mobile phone”.  Why waste time driving through a traffic jam when you could sit on a bus or a tram and play a game on your PDA?  The glimpse of the future I saw then is now becoming a more general reality.

For life is changing, and above all, cities are changing.  I was born in the middle of Birmingham.  My childhood was marked by my family moving further out over time until we ended by on the edge of the city with a view of the fields and villages on the Worcestershire/Warwickshire boundary.  Those city limits are now a bleak edgeland where the marginal are warehoused.  And the redbrick terraces of the inner ‘villages’ are now often highly desirable, or else cheap and multicultural, with a load of hipster thrown into the mix.  People are choosing to live in greater densities, not just for reasons of cost, or ease of travel to work, but also because lively neighbourhoods have the facilities – cafes, restaurants, music, cinema – that widen life out beyond the four walls of the 20th Century suburban box.

These changes necessitate new approaches to transport. They demand mass transit systems, but also safe cycling and pedestrianisation.  They need plentiful public space.

Christian Wolmar rightly talked of using market mechanisms to ‘nudge’ people in the right direction, as with London’s congestion charge.  But as well as making car use expensive, cultural change can make cars ‘uncool’.  I think that’s happening, too.  Where cars were once seen as ‘liberating’, they can come to seem a burden, an expensive, depreciating, drain on the pocket.

Which brings us back to the socialism of trams.  Private car-land, the dormitory villages and commuter towns of the shires, are places where most lives are lived in limited private space.  You are on your own.  And they vote Tory (just look at an electoral map).  Cities – densely packed, diverse, culturally active may offer less domestic space inside the home, but they offer huge shared social space.  You are not on your own.  And they don’t vote Tory.

Is this why there’s no appetite in government for a transport policy?

Ch, Ch, Changes

Who saw that coming?  When I watched George Osborne deliver his Budget speech last week, I thought it another vintage Gideon performance.  Rush past the bad news (basically all the numbers), re-announce some nice stuff that’s already been mentioned elsewhere, make some charmless ‘jokes’, and trumpet some minor stuff to grab headlines. Job done.

So Jeremy Corbyn made a decent fist of the response, sounding genuinely angry, and not being derailed by the wall of sound made by braying Tory backbenchers.  Corbin was most insistent about the way in which people with disabilities were bearing the lion’s share of the cuts in order to give further tax breaks to big business and wealthier taxpayers, but to be honest, I thought at the time that the Tories would just spin that as bleeding heart Labour, the perennial ‘welfare party’.

Sometimes I’m too cynical for my own good.  Just as the Tories’ endless repetition of ‘Labour broke the economy’ hypnotised enough people into thinking it was true, perhaps Corbyn’s repeated warnings about the Tories’ singling out of the most vulnerable in society for a repeated kicking finally started to get through.

Some of those Tory backbenchers who threatened to rebel over the cuts to PIPs had personal experience of the issue of disability, and must have listened to tales of real hardship from their own constituents.  Did they also sit on the green benches each Wednesday at PMQs and watch Corbyn’s earnest anger being swatted away scornfully by a Bullingdon bully and squirm just a little?  It’s not impossible.

Then came the IDS resignation.

Why did he do it?  Pique? Principle? Europe? Who knows, who cares? The man’s record speaks for itself, and what it says is pretty shameful.  What’s more interesting is the story behind it.

Iain Duncan Smith was once the leader of the Tory party.  He plainly thought he was owed a certain degree of deference for that.  But the young upstarts, Cameron and Osborne, showed him little but contempt. Osborne thought IDS an intellectual inferior, and Cameron thought him a social inferior.  I know the former assertion because it was in Matthew d’Ancona’s book.  I infer the latter, because that is Cameron’s default position towards pretty much anyone.  To sit around a table with such people, and to have to take their instructions must be galling. “Sell this policy, Iain old chap,” they’d say, until a focus group said it was unpopular, and the numbers didn’t add up, at which point they’d coolly order him to take the blame and announce a U turn.  Such capricious treatment takes its toll.  Just ask the public sector…..

But what does it all mean?  Is the tide turning on the Tories?

I wish.  But I doubt it.

These people are politicians dealing with real people’s lives, not celebrities in the media spotlight.  Quite simply, little of all this will impact much on the average person in the car.

Meanwhile, the knives are out in the Tory civil war, and there will be blood.  Most of it ours, probably. Plus ca change….

International Women’s Referendum Day

Surely the Brexit campaign must fall apart under the weight of its own internal squabbling, animosity, competing ambitions and hatreds?  And so to the attempt at piggybacking onto International Women’s Day to appeal to those pesky unpersuaded women.

I can well imagine the scene.  Matthew Elliott and Dominic Cummings, the young Robespierres running the Vote Leave campaign won’t have had the slightest bit of interest in ‘wimmin’, but like everyone else they’ve probably had it up to here with Priti Patel, the Narendra Modi of Home Counties, going around spreading inter-communal strife, so they had someone tell her, “Go on love, say something to fire up the little ladies.”  And Patel, who loves a camera and a microphone, toddled off to make some offensive comparisons between Nigel Farage and Emmeline Pankhurst, before toasting Boudicca with a nice glass of Babycham.  Something like that, anyway.

The festival of charmlessness that is Brexit demands a gallery at Madame Toussauds.  Boris in a straightjacket being observed by Dr.Marr.  Nigel Lawson rising each dusk from his coffin.  Michael Gove dressed as Jean Brodie.  Farage speeded up, chasing a bevy of mademoiselles and frauleins around in the manner of Benny Hill.  It’s all got the seedy air of British light entertainment from the 1970s.  Sticking a bit of faux-feminism into the mix fools no one.

And what of my side.  The idealists for Europe?  How do we fare?

Whenever I see Cameron or Osborne, or, god help us, Sajjid Javid ‘making the case’ for the vote that ought never to have been called I find myself writing a note to myself to check out how to get an Irish passport (I am eligible).  I want us to remain in the EU, but these guys make me want to spoil my ballot, so strong is my repulsion.  They put us in this mess, and I’m supposed to bail them out?

Labour MPs have been pretty impressive on the whole – across the party spectrum – at putting a strong and reasoned case to stay in the EU.  But they have no money for the official campaign led by Alan Johnson.  And I’m not sure he’s the right person to lead it, either.  He’s personable enough, but I think someone like Yvette Cooper would have been better.

I am very critical of Corbyn and his Momentum supporters on this issue.  It would have been easy for Labour to have hijacked the referendum issue to make a case not just for ‘social Europe’, but for ‘social Britain’.  Those young idealists who joined the party could have given a lively campaign a sense of youth, optimism, dynamism and vivacity, replicating the cultural impact of the Scottish referendum campaign.  Instead they appear to be wholly inwardly focused, wanting to seize the internal levers of party control.  It’s a lost opportunity.

And the others?  The Liberals are an endangered species, but Tim Farron has done a spirited job on the few occasions he has been given the chance.

And what of the SNP?  That formidable votes machine that scythed through the ranks of Scottish Labour MPs only last year?  Nicola came to London to make a big campaign speech and do a few interviews, which says all you need to know.

I’ve listened to SNP MPs giving interviews or contributing to discussions of the EU, as I’ve listened to them on many other issues.  They are much less impressive than they appear to think.  Perhaps they’ve been used to an easy ride from the Scottish media?  Or maybe they just don’t care?  Whatever, it’s quite difficult to see them as allies when they give the impression that they think a voter from anywhere but Scotland ought to be avoided at all costs, and if that handshake really has to be made you can almost feel them reaching for the antibacterial hand gel.  They’re as sneeringly condescending towards us as Cameron and his millionaire chums.

So this is my own International Women’s Day contribution to the debate.

We get all sorts of protections and safeguards from being in the EU.

Rights in the workplace, of the sort that our own government has been trying to remove (women’s applications to Employment Tribunals have fallen by 80% since the Tories hiked up charges).

Educational and cultural opportunities to study or work in other EU countries.  I’ve seen students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, thrive and grow in confidence by taking part in the Erasmus programme. The sorts of experience rich kids like Cameron and Osborne and Boris took for granted became open to all through EU programmes.  Arts and cultural links are also promoted through the EU, widening horizons and and opening up new opportunities.

Collaboration on important scientific and medical research.  Collaborative action to promote food safety.  These are things which are done more effectively across a range of countries.

Easy travel for work, for holidays, and with reciprocal arrangements to use local health services, which keep insurance costs down.  The EU also works to try to cut the costs of things like mobile phone use across national boundaries.

Co-operation across borders to fight crime and to keep us safe.  This is so important, especially with crime being increasingly international in scope.

Greater economic security.  Everywhere the tendency of successful nations is towards cooperation, not isolation.

And there’s the last big question.  War and peace.  The EU brought together the old rival powers of Europe and made them cooperate and become friends.  Britain, France, Germany went to war twice in the first few decades of the 20th Century.  Now that is inconceivable.  But the world remains dangerous.  The wars in the middle east, which our governments ‘helped’ to make happen, have been going on for longer than the the First and Second World Wars combined.  The refugee crisis thereby created, despite the hysterical reactions of frightened people, and politicians who follow rather than lead, can only be dealt with by the countries of Europe co-operating.

Otherwise, we’re on our own.