Saturday, December 13, 2008

Greenwash and Blackmail

Guest post by Dave S:

Yesterday's referendum brought an end to the campaign that has dominated Manchester politics for months. An overwhelming majority (around 80%) of a fair turnout of voters (over 50%) rejected the government's plan to make Manchester "a 21st century city".

In a scheme that was to be repeated across the country, the plan was to put up £3bn from the government's Transport Innovation Fund (TIF) into public transport infrastructure, and then pay it back over 30 years with revenues from a congestion charge. The Labour Party and their allies have really thrown themselves into the campaign, as have the Greens and environmental campaign groups like People and Planet, with lacklustre and opposition coming from the Tory party and their allies, as well as reactionary Clarksonite interest groups with names like The Motorist Alliance, bravely standing up to any suggestion that hardworking, Daily Express-reading families might have to cough up a bit of cash for the losers and sponges taking up seats on the bus. As with the Lisbon treaty, the mainstream "no" campaign did a spectacular job of missing the point, but on this occasion the Greens managed to outdo even them.

When I accuse yes campaigners of supporting what is a flat tax, the response is almost invariably to say that normal working class people can't afford cars, so this is really a progressive scheme to redistribute wealth from the motorised middle classes to the pedestrian proles. I am vaguely aware that somewhere in the provincial backwater that lies outside the M60, a congestion charge has already been in place for a few years, and I can sort of believe that the kind of logic being used here works in Central London. I can't really conceive of taking a car to the heart of the tube network without also being shortlisted to join the panel on Dragons' Den. But London this isn't. The area covered by the Manchester scheme would have been vastly more vast, and as one earnest environmentalist informed me, the poorest third of families therein don't have a car. Meaning that two-thirds of us do, and two thirds of us are not the middle classes . My mum, before she retired, worked as a nurse. She drove to work. When I spent a summer working at the box factory, it wasn't the bosses who filled the car park at the start of each shift.

For the issue isn't one of motorists' "rights", as the Jeremy Clarksons of the world would have it, but nor is it one of unsustainable privileges and lifestyle choices, as an obnoxious but vocal tendency within the Green movement seems to believe. Driving to work is a source of much pollution, yes, but it's also its own punishment. No-one comes out of the commute in a state of beatific relaxation, much less in hedonistic abandon. It's a source of great stress that most people would happily do without. The way in which capitalism runs our cities involves mass diurnal displacement on the part of the workers, and the way in which transport is organised on a private and mostly individual basis puts the burden of paying for this on the workers too. Piling a congestion charge on top of this only adds to that burden.

Another recurring theme from more reluctant chargists is the idea that only by accepting this deal will we ever see investment in public transport on any serious level. At its best, this is defeatism, at its worst, blackmail, and it really doesn't wash. One doesn't have to be a revolutionary to see what difference the money going into the banks could have made to public services, and in any case isn't this supposed to be the era of "Yes We Can"? Apart from that, though,it is misleading and dangerous to pose the situation as a choice between social justice and environmental action. Given that the plan involved the congestion charge remaining operational and lucrative for 3 decades to pay back the TIF-incurred , it would have locked mass car use into the city's budget for that time as well - another of those concrete government policies, like airport expansion and a post-NUM return to coal power, that make a mockery of the government's nominal emissions targets.

At the end of the day, Manchester needs public transport, for the health of its inhabitants and for the future of the planet. But what it has, and what would have received a cash injection from the TIF, is private mass transport. Subsidies from the public purse amount to little more than corporate welfare for companies like Stagecoach, which has increased some of its fares by around 40% over 2008 and takes a notoriously hard line on unions and the busting thereof. (By the by, I'd wager that Manchester's favourite article in Socialist Worker over the past few months was the news that strike action forced the owner of Stagecoach to drive his own bus for a bit). Just as it is the priorities of private capital that drives the commute, it is the priorities of private bus companies that draw up the bus timetables: and that means a scarmble over the most profitable routes and neglect of the "sink estates" where people actually live. Accordingly, most of the improvements proposed by the TIF were about beefing up the links between Greater Manchester's main market towns; another focused on the Oxford Road corridor, which is already the busiest bus route in Europe. The journeys that are currently a nightmare, remain a nightmare.

The print and televisual media are already berating those of us who didn't vote (and by the way, registring was a nightmare) for contributing to an historic missed opportunity for public services and the environment. In reality, this is the heartfelt rejection of another attempt to dump the bill of capitalism onto the workers, and a serious setback for the latest "Brown bounce" in the heartland of the Labour party.