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Posted on 16 December 2008 at 0:00 GMT

Greater Manchester - why the congestion charge referendum was smashed

By four-to-one in a referendum result announced on 12th December, residents of Greater Manchester threw out proposals for a "congestion charge" in return for some limited investment in public transport. With one million voters overwhelmingly rejecting it across every local authority, the scheme is dead for the foreseeable future. Similar schemes elsewhere are now in question.

Hugh Caffrey - Manchester

Public transport in Greater Manchester is, like in many other parts of the country, a disgrace. Over-priced, over-crowded, unreliable, often unsafe and with not enough routes, the service is fragmented further by the numerous companies "competing" across the region. The main parties bear the blame for this - Thatcher's Tories deregulated the service into the mess we have now, while Labour and Liberals have done nothing to significantly change the situation.

In return for £billions in subsidies and fares, the privately-owned transport companies have given us chaos. Only on a few routes do the companies directly compete, and where this is the case it shows the madness of private competition. Generally, the bus companies have divided up Greater Manchester between them, with effective monopolies by Stagecoach and First Bus on the vast majority of routes. Stagecoach also has the contract for all the Metrolink trams, while privatised rail is a national disgrace. The market has catastrophically failed to deliver the transport service which the travelling public need and deserve.

Against this shambles, the government and local authorities proposed the scheme defeated on 12th December. As the Manchester Evening News reported:

"Greater Manchester's 10 councils have been bidding for more than £2.75bn from the government's Transport Innovation Fund, including £318m to set up a charging scheme. Some £1.2bn would have been in the form of a loan, paid back over 30 years out of profits from the charge." (12 Dec 2008).

Many people have no choice except to travel by car, which is itself hardly a luxury, because of their job or for other reasons including the cost and sorry state of public transport. Under the congestion charge scheme, two "charging rings" would operate at times designed to catch people driving to or from work. The outer ring would roughly follow the M60 motorway ring-road, so affecting people travelling to/from the city of Manchester or through large parts of Salford and Trafford as well as a smaller part of Tameside. The inner ring would be much further out than the actual city centre, including parts of inner Salford and large parts of Manchester to the south, north and east of the centre. Either or both rings would affect the huge number of people living in the outer towns of Greater Manchester who have to work in Salford, Trafford or Manchester.

All the "promised" money is now being withheld by New Labour, who give £billions to bail out the banks and speculators - but nothing for transport desperately needed by working-class people. While finance companies are nationalised to save the bosses system, the transport companies remain in private hands - to save the bosses' profits!

The transport companies may well use this to increase ticket prices. The political establishment will certainly use it as an excuse for the appalling state of public transport now and in the years to come. They will argue the opportunity was there for improvements and has been rejected. This though was a rejection, not of the need for more and much better public transport but of the Yes campaign which claimed to be in favour of that.

In the vicious struggle between the official Yes and No campaigns, the direct voice of working-class people featured very little until the vote itself.

The Yes campaign was made up of Labour-controlled councils, especially Manchester City Council, together with probably a majority of big business in the region. £20m was spent by the Department for Transport and local authorities, in a not-so-subtle campaign to secure a Yes vote. Stagecoach covered the inside of its buses in "Vote Yes" posters. Bus stops, billboards, train stations, tram stops - almost every conceivable publicity point was soaked with the Yes campaign's claim that only one in ten people would pay for improvements to benefit the 90%. Clearly many of the 90% were deeply unconvinced! In desperation, the Yes campaign organised teams of "campaigners" on the streets, leafleting the public. Mail-shots were sent to every home and deeply-biased "information", included with the actual voting slips in the referendum, left no-one in doubt about the Yes campaign's main proposals.

The No campaign was dominated by a minority of politicians, especially the Tories who seized on this to pretend they are "on the side of the motorist", and to embarrass New Labour. Commercial property giant Peel Holdings played a significant role - in last May's council elections, he backed a Community Action Party (CAP) candidate in Salford against the sitting Labour councillor Roger Jones, chair of the Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive and leading Yes campaign spokesperson.

The victory of the CAP candidate in what became a ward referendum on the charge was a foreshadowing of the referendum result. Ironically Peel Holdings has collaborated with Labour councils on many other pro-business projects from which it has gained and working-class people have lost out. But on this occasion self-interest and greed broke up a profitable friendship!

In reality the vote came down to: do you believe the promises of improved public transport in return for the congestion charge? The No vote shows how little faith ordinary people, whether motorists or users of public transport, have in the promises of the political establishment. No doubt the recession played a significant part in working people refusing to tolerate another tax, regardless of its supposedly pro-environmental credentials!

The Socialist Party's two branches in Greater Manchester took the position "Vote No to another tax on working people - fight for publicly-owned public transport". Before arriving at this position we had a detailed discussion about the proposals and what they would achieve.

While sympathetic to those voting Yes in desperation for better public transport, our analysis was clear. The proposals would not achieve what they promised. Hints of re-regulation are contradicted by the facts. Every improvement relied ultimately on the same private transport companies which have spent decades ripping off the public and driving down transport workers' wages. Over any restriction on their "freedom" to provide a shoddy service, the same companies would have an effective veto. Had the Yes campaign won, £billions would have been spent on ensuring these heavily-subsidised companies could continue profiteering with only the smallest of cosmetic changes made. By itself, this would have been grossly insufficient. At the expense of further taxing a significant section of working people, in a deeply divisive manner, this was not a proposal we could support.

The voice of the trade union movement was entirely absent from the official debate and largely absent from the discussion at all. Apparently the transport unions took a position substantially similar to ours, although this was not widely known. Unfortunately, the leaders of the north-west Trades Union Congress came out in favour of the scheme, issuing on 1 December an open letter repeating almost word-for-word the position put by Labour supporters of the Yes campaign. Nowhere does this explain how a section of the working class would be severely disadvantaged, or how publicly-owned transport could be achieved. The north-west TUC leaders' position was not shared by many trade union members, who will in large numbers have voted No.

The Campaign for Free Public Transport with which we are involved agreed to not take a position on the referendum, containing as it does a variety of opinions united around public transport being free and publicly owned. Nonetheless it points the way forward. Research produced for the campaign shows how "the public transport system of modern day Greater Manchester is operating at a mere 53% of the capacity achieved at its peak in 1950." This astounding figure totally exposes the abysmal failure of all the main parties' record and policies in relation to public transport.

The trade union movement, including those who campaigned Yes, has a responsibility to show a way forward. The starting point should be a public campaign arguing for publicly owned and democratically controlled public transport, securing safe and decently paid jobs for transport workers and a genuinely affordable, safe and reliable service for passengers. The unions could outline an alternative plan of massively expanded public transport, using the expertise of transport workers. Support should be given to the Campaign for Free Public Transport, which organised a successful outdoor rally of around 70 people on 2 December. We will continue our support for the Campaign, and for a socialist plan of public transport.

The leaders of the Yes campaign are consumed with bitterness. The No campaign are cock-a-hoop but have little positive to say. If either were genuinely interested in the concerns expressed by voters then they would at least demand the government stump up the money anyway, and campaign for full powers to re-regulate public transport so they can implement their "improvements" without the congestion charge. Aside from a few press releases by a handful of politicians, this is extremely unlikely to happen. Instead both camps will continue their spat in the press as their real political and profit-driven motives are exposed.

The establishment has been decisively defeated. Now is the time to turn that 80% No into a majority for a real solution to the transport crisis.

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