Wednesday, December 10, 2008

On Congestion Charging & Demanding the Impossible

The Congestion Charge is probably one of those items you'd expect to see more of on this blog, and we have had small articles in the past (here and here), but with a day to go until voting ends I (Child of Lewin) thought I would offer my views. I identify myself because on this occasion, the opinions expressed are purely my own.

Look who votes No*

Indeed. Lots of diverse people for lots of diverse reasons. I dare say the same is true of 'Yes' campaigners. There's no denying that the loudest 'No' proponents can invariably be described as Clarkson-esque 'Mr Toad' numpties. But you would be equally wrong to equate those who are concerned about a more powerful European Union as being crypto-fascist, UKIP, Kilroy Silk-like shopkeepers. Such polarisation and lack of analysis is not excusable for those who are serious about such matters.

A Capitalist solution

The first thing we need to address is the origins of Congestion Charging itself. To some people, it may be a revelation to learn that it has less to do with reducing CO2 emissions and more to do with market economics.

The Keynesian economist William Vickrey was a theorist of 'Congestion Pricing' - best described as a way of regulating demand. The Keynesian tag is important - it means he's from a school of capitalist economists that favour direct intervention to mitigate the adverse effects of capitalism, such as recession, depression and boom - in opposition to the Monetarist approach which took particular prevalence in the 1980s. The advocates of the Keynesian approach (tagged 'socialism' or 'communism' by the extreme right or ignorant, but in actual fact anything but) are on the march again now, given that Capitalism in facing possibly it's greatest ever crisis. But the uncomfortable truth for many pro-congestion charge individuals and groups who purport to be on the left and in some way radical is that they are arguing in favour of capitalist device to regulate demand: Keynesianism is about improving stability in the private sector (hence the bailing out of private banks with public money).

In this way, at the public seminars they held, the primary concern the GMPTA reps were keen to emphasise was that congestion charging was first and foremost 'good for business'. This is important - environmental and the 'public good' angles were tellingly much lower down the list on the very first slide of the powerpoint presentation.

So as a tool, Congestion charging is meant to address 'failures of the market', primarily the failures to eliminate practices which are harmful to the environment (in the view of campaigners for it). To do this, it relies on coercion through taxation, primarily because underlying it is a pessimistic and thoroughly reactionary (and discredited) view of what is termed 'human nature' - i.e. that human beings are overwhelmingly selfish, and therefore the perceived common good has to be enforced etc. 'People' are the problem, and have to be forced to behave correctly, for their own good as well as others. A good example of this is the facebook group 'yes i DO want the congestion charge in manchester, bring it on' whose description/strapline is 'just get the train or a bus and leave your crap car in your stupid little village. we can hardly move from you twats, let alone breathe'- so it seems that the provision of public transport is all about morality twinned with a contempuous view of the 'masses'. The vaguely eco-left milieu that populate these groups should really know better than to associate themselves with such crass moralism and anti-analytical bullshit, but it seems to me that they are also part of the problem here. This section of the bourgeoisie are not really concerned with social change - they don't want to argue, rather instead they want people to be like them - to share the same diet, dress, lifestyle and music.

But the underlying flaw in the argument that a Congestion Charge (and therefore the associated TiF bid) is something to do with reducing car use is a classic contradiction - it acknowledges and recognises the dominant place the car has under capitalism, as the car will be the way to get revenue to repay a huge £1.2 bn loan in future.

Furthermore, the argument that the Congestion Charge is needed to combat CO2 emissions looks rather pathetic when one considers the promoters contend that the plan will only do so by 6%. This is also presumably the best it can do, and it's frankly not good enough. The 'Yes' proponents must know this and realise it compromises their efforts to be taken seriously in future on climate change.

Regressive Taxation

My primary objection to the Congestion Charge is the effect it will have on working people. It is a regressive tax - that is to say it will be a flat rate tax, like the hated poll tax - which will effect the less well off far more severely than the rich. £10 a day to drive in and out of the 2 zones during peak times may be merely inconvenient to the well off, but it's disastrous to the working person, at a time when wages are stagnant and food and fuel/energy prices are rising.

The GMPTA have countered this by saying that 'the poor' don't drive, or own cars. Again, the terminology is the key - for 'poor' read 'underclass' rather than the much broader 'working class'. For the pseudo-left proponents of the congestion charge, class analysis is abandoned altogether - the 'poor' get a (paltry 20%) discount, the rich can afford it (one thing they readily admit, because they have no intention of challenging the wealth & status of this small group) and the rest of us probably can anyway if we admit it. And anyway, it's for our own good.

Public Transport & the TiF bid

The flip side of the Charge 'stick' then becomes the 'Carrot' - an alleged 'Revolution' in the way people travel. But it's important to note that, at this stage, the TiF bid has 'proposals' rather than commitments - it's proponents know full well that subsidising the private sector invariably translates sooner or later into bottomless pit economics which will directly impact upon the investment and service provision that is envisaged now. It's therefore not possible to make anything other than vague promises.

Furthermore, the TiF deal for Greater Manchester has been the outcome of a competitive bidding process - with winners and losers on a national basis. 'Revolutionary' at the expense of other 'less deserving' Cities. Which sounds positively reactionary to me.

'Revolution' also implies something brand new - whereas many of the proposals are either leftovers from previous plans or existing initiatives that were always in the pipeline. The much vaunted Travel Smartcard for example, is a national initiative, already timetabled for introduction in the next 5 years. Wigan gets very little out of the TiF bid, but one of the cornerstones is the 'Leigh Guided Busway' - a scheme that has been on the books for nearly a
decade. Most of the 'new' Metrolink Trams were already ordered prior to the TiF bid.

You would expect a revolutionary plan to contain at least aspects of a radical approach - free transport, re-regulated and re-nationalised bus and train services. But that's not on the table. In fact, and on the contrary, the TiF scheme will see massive subsidies to the private sector, many of which have already begun to cynically cut back on services outside the Charging Area (perhaps in order to restore them so they look 'revolutionary' at a later stage), and also raise the prices of public transport massively. The main recipients of cash funding will be Stagecoach and First Group, who between them monopolise the bus and Metrolink services in and around the city. In addition, a massive £300 million will be paid to install the charging infrastructure, which is in itself a huge surveillance system with massive implications for civil liberties and freedom of movement.


Putting aside the abolition of capitalism and thereby assured death of the car industry for just a wee while, even a re-aligning of priorities would make a huge difference. Who amongst the more sincere 'Yes' proponents could object to moving the £6 bn annual spending on Road expansion into paying for free public transport?

And if they are not in favour of that, then how can they seriously convince anyone they want to 'revolutionise' anything? Hasselt in Belgium is an example of the possibilities of making public transport completely free - a 1319% increase in use of public transport over 10 years since the introduction - there's no surveillance nor crime because no documents are required (hint - it's FREE!).


Those who are for the Congestion Charge therefore need to accept the 'bitter pill' of the above outlined facts, alongside their vague, ill-defined, class ignorant, private-subsidy-jamboree of a scheme. The rather desperate line that 'it's either this or nothing' indicates a cowardly attitude to struggle and campaigning, alongside a willingness to swallow Capitalist doctrine seemingly at every given opportunity. If this really is the best we can expect to achieve, then they - more than anyone else - are in for a huge disappointment.

*I need to point out that, as an Anarchist, I don't 'vote' for anything or anyone on any occasion - the Militant Liberal 'Yes' voters who use 'Anarchist' as an indication of lifestyle and a flag of convenience would do well to remember that.


Stephen said...

Good summary - many points I'd not considered. One of my main gripes with the whole process is the 'take it or lose it' approach to the poll - we didn't have the chance to say that we want something but you need to think about it a bit better before you get our backing. It's almost bullying people in to voting yes or being considered a 'bad person'.
Someone once calculated that you'd only need to put 1p on income tax to make all public transport in the country free - assuming it was nationalised and not lining the pockets of a few people who were in the right place at the right time to take advantage. I'd want to at least know what would be offered as currently my 10 minute car ride to work would take 40 minutes on the bus - assuming the supposedly once every 2-3 minutes 192 actually turns up more often than every half an hour... The carrot really should be to offer a public transport network that is of some use and if people then decide not to use it consider the alternatives...

kirtlegreen said...

Kirtle Green, another contributor on this site does not agree. The only thing wrong with the congestion charge in my view is that it is not extended more widely.

I would wager a significant amount of money on the TIF bid failing however, I just cannot see it has any chance of succeeding, as everyone even Green campaigners, and social activists, have found some way for justifying their continued car addiction.

Sorry Lewin not to agree with you, but on this occasion I think you are part of the problem. I might state the opposite view in a blog?

Ah the joys of free online debate!


Children of Lewin said...

To be honest, you'll have to do better than that - there's no point in simply posting 'I don't agree'.

I welcome analysis and argument, not moral finger pointing, which serves no purpose in this issue.