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Telling the Truth About Buses

Lisa Nandy's criticisms of Labour's bus policies in the last election were wrong on the facts – and that's a bad way to begin understanding what went wrong, argues Andy McDonald.

Watching the Newsnight hustings for the Labour leadership contest, I was surprised and disappointed to hear leadership contender Lisa Nandy criticising Labour for what she perceived as a lack of attention on bus services before saying she wished Labour had promised as much as Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.

As Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary, I felt compelled to write this article to set the record straight. It is of course vital that Labour interrogates the reasons for our devastating election defeat, but we must also ensure this debate is honest and factually accurate if we are to learn the lessons.

There is a persuasive case that Labour failed to communicate our policy offers effectively and weave a convincing narrative to convince voters of the merit of our plans, but to suggest that Labour ignored buses is plain wrong. Similarly, the idea that we were out-promised by the Conservatives is incorrect and lavishes them with undeserved praise.

Labour’s bus policies were highly ambitious and at the heart of our plans to improve transport networks and slash climate emissions. A decade of austerity has devastated bus services, leading to over 3,000 route cuts, fares to rise at twice the rate of wages and bus use to plummet to an all-time low.

Buses are by far the most used and most important form of public transport, with a massive 4.36 billion journeys taken on buses in 2018-2019 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. These cuts have been disastrous for the individuals and communities who rely on buses, especially those in rural areas and towns where buses are the only available form of public transport.

It is because Labour appreciates just how central bus services are to our plans to create an equitable and just society, whilst at the same time addressing the climate crisis, that Jeremy Corbyn used all his questions at a Prime Minister Questions to scold Theresa May over the crisis in bus services – a first for PMQs, which was received with laughter from Conservative MPs and bemusement from the media.

As Shadow Transport Secretary, my view was that simply reversing Conservative cuts did not go far enough. This is why our policies set out not only to reverse the decades-long decline in bus networks which had been exacerbated by austerity cuts, but to transform bus network across the country.

At present, passengers and the people they elect to represent them have little or no say over how buses are run, because in England (outside of London) private companies decide where and when to run bus services. This why is Labour pledged to give all councils the power to regulate their bus services and to support the creation of council-owned bus companies to cut out private profit, giving all local authorities the powers and resources to design bus networks to provide the best service for the public rather than the maximum income for private shareholders.

We recognised buses as the priority for transport, which is why we pledged to invest almost twice the amount of revenue spending on buses than we did on rail. We pledged not only to reverse 3,000+ route cuts but to invest the same amount again to deliver new services. This would have ended the transport deserts that exist across the country, slashed climate emissions and air pollution, and helped towns to regenerate their declining high streets.

On top of this, we said we would provide funding for publicly regulated and owned bus companies to provide free travel for under-25s, to encourage lifelong public transport use and help young people access education and employment.

Labour’s policies also recognised how investing in buses could form part of a Green Industrial Revolution, boosting manufacturing at the same time as slashing carbon emissions, so we made an ambitious pledge to electrify England’s 35,000 strong bus fleet by 2030.

To say that these policies, which represented the biggest funding boost and most dramatic and ambitious programme for bus networks in the country’s history, were less than what was recently promised by Boris Johnson, is simply untrue.

Boris Johnson’s recent announcement – £5bn for both buses and cycling – leaves in place the 3,000+ axed bus routes and fails to match Labour’s plans to give councils the powers and funding to regulate or own their own bus networks. By contrast, without even including free travel for under-25s and bus electrification, Labour would have invested £6.5bn over the parliament to reverse cuts and invest in new services.

In no way do I wish to criticise any leadership candidate for seeking to identify the reasons for Labour’s devastating election defeat, and our failure to communicate effectively with voters in a way that convinced them we were in touch with their everyday concerns must be central to this analysis. However, we should expect this discussion to be informed by facts.

At the very least, leadership candidates should be familiar with the 2019 manifesto before criticising it. I am heartbroken over Labour’s failure at the general election but I am proud of our policy offer on buses, which I believe are the right policies to reduce social and regional inequalities, boost productivity, tackle the climate crisis and improve quality of life across the country. An interesting question for leadership candidates is whether they will retain or retreat from Labour’s ambitious bus policies.