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From The Socialist newspaper, 14 January 2009

Why Manchester rejected the congestion charge

BY A four-to-one margin, Greater Manchester residents have thrown out proposals threatening to bring in a "congestion charge" in return for some limited investment in public transport. A million voters overwhelmingly rejected it in a referendum and the scheme is dead for the foreseeable future. Similar schemes elsewhere are now in question.

Hugh Caffrey, Manchester

Public transport in Greater Manchester is a disgrace. Over-priced, over-crowded, unreliable, often unsafe and with not enough routes, the service is fragmented further by numerous companies "competing" across the region. The main political parties bear the blame - Thatcher's Tories deregulated the service into the present mess, while Labour and Liberals did nothing to significantly change the situation.

In return for billions of pounds in subsidies and fares, the privately-owned transport companies have given us chaos. Only on a few routes do companies directly compete, and where they do, it shows the madness of private competition. 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 Metrolink trams, while privatised rail is a national disgrace. The market has catastrophically failed to deliver the transport service which the travelling public needs and deserves.

Against this shambles, the government and local authorities proposed the scheme defeated on 12 December. As the Manchester Evening News reported: "Greater Manchester's 10 councils have been bidding for more than 2.75 billion from the government's Transport Innovation Fund, including 318 million to set up a charging scheme. Some 1.2 billion would have been in the form of a loan, paid back over 30 years out of profits from the charge."

Many people have no choice except to travel by car, in 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 have operated at times designed to catch people driving to or from work, hitting both Manchester residents and huge numbers of people who live in the outer towns but work in Salford, Trafford or Manchester.

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

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

In the vicious struggle between official Yes and No campaigns, the direct voice of working-class people featured little until the vote itself. The Yes campaign was made up of Labour-controlled councils, especially Manchester city council, together with probably most of the region's big business.

Dubious promises

The Department for Transport and local authorities spent 20 million 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!

The Yes campaign organised teams of "campaigners", 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 trying to pretend they are "on the motorist's side", and trying to embarrass New Labour. Commercial property giant Peel Holdings played a significant role - in last May's council elections, it backed a Community Action Party (CAP) candidate in Salford against sitting Labour councillor Roger Jones, chair of Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive and leading Yes campaign spokesperson.

The CAP candidate's victory in what became a ward referendum on the charge foreshadowed the referendum result. Ironically Peel Holdings collaborated with Labour councils on many other pro-business projects from which it has gained and working-class people have lost out. But this time, 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, motorists or public transport users, have in the political establishment's promises. No doubt the recession also played a part in working people refusing to tolerate another tax.

Some environmental groups campaigned for a 'yes' vote on environmental grounds. A massive expansion of public transport would have huge benefits for the environment, including on air quality. Voters however were rightly not convinced that the congestion charge scheme would have a significant impact on improving the environment.

Real solution

AFTER A detailed discussion, the Socialist Party's two branches in Greater Manchester took the position on the referendum: "Vote No to another tax on working people - fight for publicly-owned public transport".

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 private transport companies that have spent decades ripping off the public and driving down transport workers' wages. The same companies would have an effective veto over any restriction on their 'freedom' to provide a shoddy service.

Had the Yes campaign won, billions of pounds 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 trade union movement's voice was entirely absent from the official debate and largely absent from the discussion. 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 the position put by Labour supporters of the Yes campaign.

Nowhere did this explain how a section of the working class, road vehicle drivers, 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 for the campaign showed that "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 on 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 that campaign, and for a socialist plan of public transport.

The Yes campaign leaders 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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In The Socialist 14 January 2009:

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Building ISR and Socialist Students in 2009

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Debate and meeting in Dublin

Sri Lanka -: Vicious attacks on media and killing of newspaper editor

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Why Manchester rejected the congestion charge


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