The wrong kind of policy on the lines

tubepackedThe weekend before last, to my surprise, the Scottish Greens’ conference rejected a motion calling for free public transport. I don’t know why conference opposed it, but I know why I did, and why I spoke against. Here’s the motion:

We will make a phased introduction of free public transport as finance becomes available. Through both local and national schemes, we will make bus, train, tram, underground and foot-ferry services fare-free, with free bus services the first priority.

I had been pretty anxious about this vote. Everyone at a Green conference loves public transport, and everyone wants to see it displace car and plane travel in particular. But this approach would be thoroughly flawed, and would undermine the existing public transport network while missing opportunities to tackle inequalities.

The first and most obvious problem is the money. Fares on our current transport network bring in a substantial sum of money to contribute to its costs. In 2010-11, bus, train and ferry tickets in Scotland brought in around £750m. I was advised after the meeting that the most recent figures are actually over a billion pounds. That’s equivalent to around half Transport Scotland’s budget, and yes, I’m aware that a lot of that is wasted on vanity roads schemes like the additional Forth Crossing.

A billion pounds, though, is also four times the cost of building Glasgow Crossrail and reopening Edinburgh’s South Suburban railway. Every year. To call for the expansion of the public transport network, as we do, and then to make it all free? Apologies to the comrades, but that’s SSP economics, i.e. uncosted and un-thought-through handwaving. There’s no point even aiming for something if you can’t work out whether you could ever get there.

The second problem is usage. Imagine how busy our buses and trains would become if they were free for all. These networks are creaking already. The preamble to the motion talked about a town in Belgium (note, not an intercity network or one that covers vast rural areas) which saw a 1,300% increase in usage when it made public transport free. I pretty regularly take Scotland’s busiest rail journey: Edinburgh to Glasgow Queen Street. It’s regularly full to bursting, even with four trains an hour at the busiest times. I can’t even imagine what it would look like if it were thirteen times more full, especially without thirteen times the ticket revenue to support expansion. Sure, there are four routes between the two cities, and the others can be less busy, but even so, it just doesn’t add up. To make sufficient capacity for every person in Scotland to use trains, buses and ferries on a whim would cost billions more. Without that, the result would be a miserable and virtually unusable service, one that would cost almost incalculably more, and one where the better off would tend to retreat to their cars. And this plan would use vastly more energy and other resources: a nation constantly on the go on a whim, jammed into continuous trains and buses isn’t a vision of the green future I want to see.

I’m all for radical shifts in spending, mind. But if we want to spend more money on public transport, and I do, that wouldn’t be my preference. It wouldn’t even feature at any point before we have cracked resource depletion, energy costs, and social inequality. Why should we be making it cheaper to get a bus than it is to get on a bike? Counting shoe-leather, this would make a bus cheaper than walking: and those two ways of getting about, for those who can, should be the top priority. Let’s spend some of this same money on proper bike networks and support for much wider active travel.

Let’s also invest more in all forms of public transport instead. Buses get neglected: let’s re-regulate them, and work towards bringing them back in-house (trains too). Let’s subsidise those rural routes even further. Let’s gradually reopen rail lines (one of the modest transport success stories of devolution). Let’s expand the network, not make the current limited system unusable.

And yes, let’s cap fares or reduce them if we can. But before that we should be looking to waive fares for more people. We already have free travel for pensioners: let’s not give a subsidy to companies sending their employees to meetings or tourists heading to the Highlands. We could instead extend that free travel to those on benefits, those earning the minimum wage, those in education, carers – any number of groups for whom this would make a real difference. It’s not like the NHS or education – I don’t think infinite travel for work and leisure should be subsidised for the better off, whereas I do think everyone should be treated for free and educated for free irrespective of income. But imagine if those currently on the wrong end of austerity didn’t have to pay to get to job interviews or the job centre, if they could take their family away to somewhere nice with a beach for nothing of a weekend, or if they could visit friends elsewhere in the country with ease. It’d be transformative. I’d still be paying to go pitch my company’s wares to organisations in Glasgow, too: and rightly so.

Expanding the network, supporting active travel, and ending fares for those for whom it would make a real difference: that would fuse our social justice and sustainability objectives. Pipedreams about free transport are superficially appealing, but would in practice push the wrong way on both those objectives.

Join the conversation

A guest post today from Andrew McFadyen on the future of the Labour Party: here’s the Labour for Scotland statement

lfsSeptember 18th was a misty, murky morning in Edinburgh. Beneath the haar that rolled in from the Firth of Forth something extraordinary was happening.

People came out to vote in unprecedented numbers to decide on Scotland’s future. In some districts, turnout topped 90 per cent. Many who hadn’t taken part in any election for years felt energised and engaged.

The result confirmed Scotland’s place in the UK, but some of the areas with the deepest connection to the Labour movement voted Yes. In Glasgow, every single constituency produced a majority for an independent Scotland.

At its simplest, those people who looked out their windows and didn’t like what they saw voted Yes. Those 1.6 million votes should be heard as a deafening call for change in the way that politics is done in Scotland.

When the people shouting loudest are those who have traditionally looked to Labour to speak for them, the party must respond.

This matters to me because the Labour Party has been one of the longest and most important relationships in my life.

As a boy, my brother and I were packed off every summer to our grandparents in Kilmarnock. We spent our days playing football in the grounds of the Grange Academy. In the evenings my grandpa would talk about politics.

He described to me how the 1945 Labour Government was the best the country had ever had and spoke about Nye Bevan, the Welsh coal miner who founded the NHS, as if he had known him personally.

When I went up to Glasgow University, to study history, I signed up to join the Labour Club during Freshers’ Week. My next four years were spent marching against fascism and campaigning for student grants.

Twenty years on, I am a bit older and wiser but Labour is still my party.

That’s why I got involved with Labour for Scotland’s initiative to hold an open meeting at Strathclyde University, on October 18th, at which Labour members and supporters can discuss what happens next.

I believe that Labour’s distinctive contribution to the political debate in Scotland must be as a force for socialist and progressive policies.

Now that the referendum is over, we should admit that spending the past two years running a joint campaign with the Conservatives has done real damage to Labour’s reputation in its heartlands.

You can’t talk credibly about solidarity when you are sharing a platform with the people responsible for the Bedroom Tax. The values that motivate your politics are a far more important dividing line than whether you are Yes or No.

It is time to surprise people with imagination and ambition. Labour needs to set out a vision for how home rule in the 21st century will shift power, not just across borders, but from the elites into the hands of working people.

A more democratic Scotland must be a way of achieving a more equal Scotland.

I would like to see Labour’s next manifesto containing commitments to make the minimum wage in Scotland a living wage, to give communities a far greater say over issues that affect them, such as school closures, and to put railways into public ownership.

But this is just my view. The most important thing is that we start a conversation from the grassroots upwards.

This debate should include how we democratise the Labour Party itself. For example, is there a case for directly electing members of the Shadow Cabinet at Holyrood? This would make party spokespersons far more accountable for policy decisions.

Labour for Scotland is not offering a plan, or a blueprint, about how Labour should respond to the referendum, but we want to talk. Come along on Saturday and tell us what you think.

This is England


Those who squeezed in to the Scottish Green conference this weekend were greeted by thought-provoking image on the front of their delegate packs – an inverted map of the UK with Scotland in the middle nestling comfortably between Norway and Ireland, England fading into the distance.

In England though Scotland is as peripheral as ever. On a Saturday afternoon in rural Oxfordshire people mill about the bus stops and market in Witney, the nominal home of the Prime Minister. This is small town English life as the modern Tories envisage it. Pavement cafes and bistros line the high street, itself furnished with ample parking. Witney is a bus ride from Oxford, and functions as a jumping off point for even quainter Cotswold towns and villages.
A few miles away, just down the road from the RAF base at Brize Norton, sits the town of Burford. Its long street of pubs and restaurants is straight out of the Visit Britain adverts plastered on the white walls of airports across the globe.

The town hall has a noticeboard outside listing all the goings on, a public letter of support about the maintenance of rural bus services in West Oxfordshire taking centre stage among the bulletins. There’s no appeal for food bank donations or invitations to public meetings though. The various crises and pressures hitting contemporary Britain from both left and right are well beyond being felt here. Burford is the final navigable point on the Thames, and it feels a very long way from London.

In the local deli, a phenomenon quickly replacing the dying village shop in places like Burford across the South, a woman is giving out samples of locally grown organic fruit liqueur. “I’m guessing you’re not local” she says, pushing over a thumbfull of red liquid. “It’s very nice here, even if it is a bit Midsomer Murders sometimes.”
Stepping outside on the street it is obvious she is right. This is not the kind of place that needs to put up Union Jacks. Its Englishness is written into the buildings, as is its wealth.

A taxi driver who ferries people from village to village, a British-Asian called Abdul, puts it succinctly. “I mostly just do station runs or take non locals to weddings. Almost everyone here has a car.”

At a local wedding venue you can hear the transport aircraft whine as they race up the runway at Brize Norton, headed for Afghanistan, the Falklands and perhaps now Syria too. Inside a Ceilidh band is starting up and a mixed crowd of nervous home counties partyers peppered with a few Scots nervously practice the dances the band want them to play. The Scots, kilted-up and playing their part, lead everyone else as the good whisky is uncorked on the sidelines. This is the only manifestation of Scotland that could possibly work in this part of the country, detached as it is from the reality of the England outside too.

The following morning the TV at the local pub broadcasts a silent Andrew Marr as guests tuck into their full English breakfasts. The UKIP election victory in Essex is comparable to the shockwave the SNP have created in Scotland, he says. In Burford and Witney though it is very easy to forget what is going on, chillax and eat your cereal.

The Two Faces of Democracy

Today’s guest post is from Duncan Thorp, who’s previously written for us about social enterprise and hate in politics. Thanks Duncan!

12978395593_3fbf45b646_mWe’re living in exciting times, Scotland has changed for the better. Nothing’s changed but everything’s changed. The referendum has been recognised by most people as an exercise in peaceful democracy. It’s true.

In terms of the vote itself, the huge level of popular participation and the technical and legal agreements, it was incredible.

97% of the voting population registered to vote. 16 and 17 year olds enfranchised for the first time, an 85% turnout. A true Scotland-wide debate. More information, slogans and facts flowing like never before. All this over an extended timeframe, far longer than any election.

We should genuinely celebrate this achievement. Only with historical perspective will future generations understand how powerful it was, an independence movement without bloodshed is virtually unheard of. A few bad eggs are as serious as it got.

But there’s another side to this exercise in direct democracy. The environment of the wider society that it took part in was very much anti-democratic. The dominant state narrative of Britishness is ever-present in every aspect of our lives. In this context it’s nothing less than a miracle that 45% of those voting wanted independence.

Much of the mainstream corporate media was of course a blatant case of misinformation, bog standard bias or agitprop. Years of daily, unrelenting, anti-independence news from nearly 100% of the print media can’t be dismissed. Broadcasters often struggled with their values and biases in favour of the status quo. Any media “neutrality” simply means that a story includes views from both sides – it doesn’t cover the decisions to include/exclude certain stories in the first place.

Similarly, large corporations making even vague anti-independence statements, while wielding huge economic power over jobs and investment, were leapt on by the mainstream media. The very fact of the unequal economic power balance in favour of big business meant that any potential relocation was a huge threat (genuine or not).

Indeed without straying into silly conspiracy theory territory, it would be naïve to suggest that HM Government and all the apparatus of the British state, were not deployed (under the radar) to save the state itself in its most critical moment of need. Would you lie back and allow your own power to be fragmented and taken away?

It’s also perplexing that the British nationalists of the far-right were absent until after the votes were counted. It was upsetting to see a mob performing Nazi salutes, singing Rule Britannia and burning a Saltire in George Square, Glasgow. They clearly didn’t get the memo about the “war against nationalism”. Where were they in exercising their democratic rights during the campaign?

It’s certainly unfair to suggest that every no voter was simply fooled or voted out of fear. Some were emotionally dependent on the British narrative and some were basically happy with the way the UK had turned out. Many people voted no because they didn’t think that the economic case had been made. They just disagreed with the other side. Acceptance of the referendum result is vital; we can identify flaws while still abiding by it. It’s all relative. We must move on. But getting back in the box is not an alternative. “One Scotland” unity, while well-meaning, is easily abused. Orwell’s Unity is Strength springs immediately to mind because unity is often a code word for compliance and conformity. There’s no place for eat your cereal politics.

There is only wisdom in crowds, not in elite decision-making. The huge participation wasn’t simply because of the subject, it was because we, the people, were making the actual decision ourselves. Unlike in elections, we were not voting to choose other people to make decisions for us. One of saddest things I read on 19 September was Happy Dependence Day, a slogan but also a defiant recognition of the need for autonomy.

We’ve been too conservative in using the powers that The Scottish Parliament already has. By using current and newly devolved powers a real difference can be made. From the missing link of radical devolution to local communities, land reform, community energy and building our own community organisations to real public sector reform. We need creativity and commitment. We also need to drive forward social media and democratic, inclusive, unbiased media. We don’t need alternative media that just reinforces our own views without challenge.

There are many incredible people-led movements across the world and there’s also a wider war against democracy. We should be aware of these many campaigns against elite, minority rule and for direct people power. It’s only with mass and persistent action that fundamental change happens.

While the UK state infrastructure remains powerful, the unionist campaign was temporary. The Indy infrastructure is now thriving. Energised, motivated and determined, they’re going nowhere. Much of this has thankfully gone beyond narrow nationalism and indeed beyond narrow independence. It’s not about the 45%, it’s about the 100%. We now need this to be a democracy movement.

But forget the challenges, the truth is self-evident. Autonomy and authentic, direct democracy is addictive. One taste and people want more. This vote was important but it was just one step as part of an ongoing journey.

Two weeks, two votes, two very different journeys

Look deeper into the people's home, and you see one utopia fading, another never built.

Look deeper into the people’s home, and you see one utopia fading, another never built.

The day before the referendum on Scottish independence I took the train from Edinburgh to Glasgow, the Bathgate and Airdrie way, through the central belt. With a Danish TV crew in tow we rolled past the industrial estates of the Almond valley and over the wind-beaten hills from Scotland’s second biggest city to its largest. We were there because the Danes wanted to report on the Scotland beyond the clichés and find a bit of normality somewhere. We found it in a Coatbridge tower block, a pensioner in a dressing gown and hair net waiting for her hairdresser to arrive as she stared out over the Lanarkshire hills from her weatherproofed window on the 13th floor.

A week after the referendum I found myself on a different train journey, from Gothenburg to Stockholm.  The country that became a blueprint for what the imagined post-independence Scotland could have looked like has a central belt too, a string of small factory towns stretching from coast to coast. Take the slow train and you see an awful lot of them, clustered around canals and lakes with wood processing plants and packing warehouses in red brick. In some the social housing projects of the fifties and sixties mingle with the wooden villas of an earlier age and the eco-leaning terraces of 1990s and 2000s Scandinavinism sub-urbanism.

Both countries are currently on a comedown, dealing with the fact that their dreams have been tempered by a democratic reality. In Scotland’s case, voters said no to independence, and in Sweden’s the hopes for a majority left government for the first time in almost a decade faded at the hands of a far-right surge and the unenterprising vision of a Social Democratic party looking desperately for a sense of purpose.

Yet Sweden is a particularly mundane utopia. The great Social Democratic project may be as directionless as the dream of a Scottish people’s home, but Scotland and Sweden are still two very different places in how they look and feel. Sweden has entered a stage of indecision at the end of the project, whilst Scotland has not begun. If the question in Sweden is ‘what now’, the question in Scotland is ‘why are we still here?’

Waiting for the train, smoking a cigarette outside the shuttered booking hall of Coatbridge Sunnyside railway station, my half Swedish, half Danish colleague gestures toward the grey pebbledash and the jumble of Yes and No Thanks signs in the tiny windows opposite.

“Why are all the homes here so poor?”, she asks. She doesn’t mean the poverty, even though you do not have to go far in Coatbridge to find examples of it, from the empty shops to discount chain stores. She is talking about the dysfunctionality of the buildings. Cut off from the street by protective barriers across a sea of tarmac, they ring the spot at which many people arrive in the town.

This was the utopian dream, I answer. These were the new homes, the open towns away from inner city Glasgow, but now we’ve all decided that inner cities are the place to be and everyone has forgotten about the new towns and housing projects of the 60s and 70s. Once again Labour are in charge of the project, but instead of building council houses it is all about incentivising newbuilds on the red sandstone ashes of central and eastern Glasgow, a fast track to easy pickings for private developers.
In Sweden meanwhile the sun is shining on the lakes and forests. The Göta Canal, designed in part by the Scot Thomas Telford, cuts across Sweden together with the railway. Along it are the kinds of small towns that most people never see, a main street around a railway station with a municipal sports hall and a supermarket. Many of them are single-industry places, but unlike the grey sameness of Bathgate or Blackburn they have somehow survived.

In the small town of Arboga, a women’s football match has just kicked off by the station. The town was previously home to Volvo aviation, now gone, but it is not mired in post-industrial malaise. The sports facilities are well maintained and it still feels like old fashioned Sweden in many ways. That partly explains the political makeup – in the recent elections forty per cent of people voted Social Democrat, but almost fifteen per cent voted for the populist right Sweden Democrats. The Sweden Democrats campaigned on a platform of ‘tradition and security’, and in a country struggling to adapt to globalisation and the brutal orthodoxy of contemporary European markets their message is simplistic but attractive: Sweden was better in the past, and we can bring it back. This is Sweden’s mundane utopia.

Further on, the train rolls through Stockholm’s northern suburbs. Small communities sucked in by the growing city and connected by metro and commuter train. It was a dream Glasgow briefly held in the fifties before abandoning it in favour of motorways and a disdain for inner city living. The tracks are being quadrupled to cope with increased demand for public transport, but how Sweden is going to pay for such long term investments is increasingly unclear. The previous government reduced taxes significantly and public finances are no longer as forthcoming as they once were. Now all the talk is of management and small changes over utopian visions. Sweden has had its age of transformation, and now politics is about safeguarding what was once achieved.

Back in Scotland, George Square is alive with Yes supporters optimistically waiting for a vote they themselves still believe they can win. Old nationalists shouting ‘freedom’ with lions rampant mingle with hipsters and peace campaigners. Down the street some younger female campaigners complain about the vocal men with saltires round their shoulders driving potential voters away.  This temporary fusion of old nationalism and new utopianism need only hold up for twenty four hours more.  The Danes get the shots of saltires and crowds they need for their TV spot. A few thousand people who all share the same dream, some in all the nuanced shades of colour and some more black and white.

In Stockholm the mundane utopia still ticks over,  though it is starting to come apart at the seams. The Greens are trying to form a minority government with the Social Democrats, struggling with a the details and responsibilities of administering one of the wealthiest nations on earth as it goes through a crisis of self image. In Lanarkshire meanwhile, people still wait for the mundane comfort the referendum promised them.