Putting transport on the activist agenda

Simon Norton, Cambridge and London

When I was 14 I accidentally came across some London Transport publicity. This led to me developing passions for public transport and for the countryside (at that time London Transport ran buses in the Home Counties, which were less urbanised than they are now).

 I remember voting in the 1973 GLC election. One of the key issues there was the London motorway box, which the Tories favoured and Labour and the Liberals were against. This led to me thinking of the latter two parties as the good guys and the Tories as the bad guys.

This impression was dented when Labour has made a lot of mistakes over the years, from the 1964 government’s failure to reverse the Beeching rail closures to Crosland’s depiction of rail users as an elite with cars being the mode of transport used by ordinary people. It was not until 1982, after Ken Livingstone et al had won power locally, that I became motivated to join the Labour Party.

During the Thatcher years it was often a source of frustration to me that even though the good guys were getting a majority of votes the bad guys were retaining power, and I joined campaigns for tactical voting to stop this.

Locally, where I was then living in a Tory/Lib marginal — actually I’m still living in the same house but it’s now in a different ward — I put these principles into practice.

While I supported the revised Labour Party constitution in the referendum, my support for the party started to ebb when Blair became leader, and I was looking for an excuse to defect to the Lib Dems, as they had now become. Indeed I probably would have defected in 1998 had not Labour introduced the Rural Bus Grant in its budget that year (nicely timed to coincide with my birthday, if I recollect rightly !). It didn’t help that the Lib Dems had supported the Newbury Bypass — the scar from its construction was one of the first things I saw when returning to Labour Britain from a 2 month visit to N America, which was where I’d been when the 1997 election results came through (and before anyone asks, I did get a postal vote at that election). But by 2005, after being on the losing side of a roads inquiry, I had had enough with Labour and decided not to renew my membership. However I did not join the Lib Dems, though I did vote for them in the 2010 general election (for the first time since the second election of 1974)…

…a decision which I was soon to regret, as they joined up with the Tories for a systematic assault on our bus network, which threatens to make my two passions as described above incompatible with each other.

I shudder to think how in the run-up to the election I attended a Lib Dem meeting specifically to hear Norman Baker (and congratulated him on his speech at the preceding year’s Climate March), when in correspondence with me following a parliamentary meeting about buses (for which he became the responsible minister) he expressed total complacency about the effect of the Government’s cuts.

Unfortunately the prime beneficiaries of his party’s collapse appear to have been the Tories, who retained control of many local authorities in this year’s elections. (Some including my own they lost to the UKIP surge, but I am not expecting any outbreak of progressive policies from them.)

Recently my prime political aim has been to get the issue of integrated transport on the activist agenda. For some reason it seems to have been almost completely ignored by mainstream environmental organisations, despite the devastation wrought by cars on our environment in both urban and rural areas, and not forgetting the very substantial slice of greenhouse gas emissions caused by individual private motor vehicles.

Incidentally, I am relatively satisfied with the current state of affairs with respect to the railways. I’d like to see them renationalised, but this is not as much of a priority as securing a framework which will underpin a comprehensive network of bus services. After the decades of neglect had been terminated by the ministership of Lord Adonis, railways are now accepted by all parties as an essential part of our national infrastructure. But whole communities off the railways continue to be written off, and I am doing everything I know how to try to get them back on the map.

Does anyone have any ideas as to why this issue is so neglected ? Even the bluest of Tories and the high priests of localism aren’t arguing for local authorities to be allowed to say “there isn’t enough demand for public education in your area, you’ll have to send your child to a private school” so why are they being allowed to get away with making the corresponding statements for transport ? Why, when discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation, disability etc. are rightly abhorred, do we continue to tolerate discrimination against non-motorists, even though Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights clearly prohibits discrimination on the grounds of “property” ?


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