At Conservative Party Conference, there was a flurry of announcements that imitated Labour’s policies in style if not in substance. Among these was a supposed newfound commitment to bus services.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, took to the airwaves to complain that “politicians haven’t taken buses seriously enough” – a bizarre protest from a man who has served in government for much of the past decade.
Javid then claimed that if he hadn’t become Chancellor, he would be a bus driver. Before being elected to Parliament, Javid was a banker at Deutsche Bank earning roughly £3million a year, so this would have been an unlikely career move.
Boris Johnson made similarly implausible statements in his speech to Conservative Party conference, claiming himself to be a “bus nut.” Clearly, this Etonian aristocrat and his millionaire banker Chancellor don’t care for bus services or the communities who rely on them – but their decision to pivot on this issue is revealing nonetheless.
There appears to be a recognition from the Conservatives that their route to power involves winning the support of those who will vote based on issues that are more immediate to their material conditions, and that Labour’s proposal to reverse the decades-long shift of wealth and power away from working people appeals to a country that has suffered nine years of austerity.
Talking about buses allows the Tories to paint themselves as being in touch with people’s everyday experiences and distance themselves from the perception that they are a party of elites, detached from the concerns of the working-class.
The Tories’ decision to focus on buses reveals an awareness that constitutional questions alone won’t win this election. Their promise to “transform” bus services was devised, the Tory-supporting Sun said, “to tackle Labour’s popular election offer to voters for better bus services head on.”
But, unsurprisingly, the substance of the policy did not match the feigned enthusiasm with which it was announced. They proposed just £30 million to reverse bus cuts, which amounts to less than 5% of what has been cut from bus budgets since they took office in 2010.
This was accompanied by vague pledges to improve ticketing and infrastructure, which were unaccompanied by the money and additional powers needed to make much of a difference. It was all mouth and no trousers.
In fact, the only party leader in recent memory who has treated buses with the seriousness they deserve is Jeremy Corbyn, who was a noted bus enthusiast long before he was Labour Party leader. I was sat on the front bench when he used all his Prime Minister’s Questions to ask about buses, and was met by an unresponsive Prime Minister and a buffoonery of laughing Tory MPs.
As a socialist, Corbyn understands just how central bus services are to addressing the climate crisis and creating an equitable and just society. Bus services are vital to the future of communities across this country and the severity of the social, economic and environmental impacts of their decline can’t be overstated.
Buses are by far the most used and most important form of public transport, with a massive 4.36 billion journeys taken on buses last year alone. For many people, buses are the only form of public transport they can afford or the only kind anywhere near their home or workplace.
But nine years of austerity have left buses in crisis, with the Conservatives cutting funding in England by £645 million a year in real terms since 2010. This has led fares to rise more than twice as fast as wages, over 3,000 routes to be cut or withdrawn and bus use to fall by 11 per cent. Scandalously, this decline in use has occurred while bus companies have paid shareholders a whopping £1.5 billion in dividends in the past decade.
In urban and suburban areas, this increased car dependency and congestion, precipitating the decline of our highstreets and worsening the air pollution crisis that causes 40,000 premature deaths each year.
These cuts have a disproportionate impact on already disadvantaged groups: those on low incomes, young and old people, women, black and minority ethnic groups and people with disabilities, who find themselves cut-off from work and leisure opportunities or health and other key services.
For those living in rural areas, the impact of cuts can be even more severe. United Nations Special Rapporteur Professor Philip Alston was especially damning of rural bus provision in his report on extreme poverty and human rights in the UK, stating “abandoning people to the private market in relation to a service that affects every dimension of their basic well-being is incompatible with human rights requirements.”
Passengers and the people they elect to represent them have little or no say over how buses run, because in England (outside of London) private companies decide where and when to run bus services. Reliable and affordable transport should be treated as a human right, and Labour agrees with Professor Alston that people should not be abandoned to the private market.
That’s why we will support new council-owned bus companies to cut out private profit and give all councils powers and resources to design bus networks to provide the best service for the public, rather than maximum income for private shareholders.
And rather than simply paying lip-service to the importance of buses, we will completely reverse the Tory cuts to bus services since 2010. On top of all the bus services that will be reinstated, we will fund as many new bus services. That’s a commitment of £1.3 billion a year, enough to reverse more than 3,000 route cuts and transform services across England.
–In addition, we will provide free bus travel for under-25s in areas that take services back into public control or ownership. To pay for this, we are diverting money away that is planned for an environmentally unsustainable, ever-expanding motorway-building programme.
Giving communities the power and the funding to make bus services available, reliable and affordable underpins our economic, social and environmental wellbeing. The Conservatives have nothing more than hollow words on buses. Labour is ready to implement a socialist vision for bus services that will remake not only our transport networks but the country.