Britain : Congestion charge - Blair and Livingstone, a division of labour not opposing policies

Mar/Apr 2003

When Ken Livingstone was elected mayor of London, back in 2000, his success was hailed in most quarters as a major setback for Blair. And, in a certain sense, this was indeed true. After all, had not Livingstone been expelled from the Labour party for refusing to stand down in front of Blair's nominee, Frank Dobson? And despite this, had he not managed to win the election while pushing Dobson into a distant third place? It was estimated at the time that slightly over half of Greater London's Labour voters had shifted their votes to Livingstone. This meant that a sizeable section of London's working class electorate had grabbed this opportunity to express its discontent over Blair's policies, by disowning his hand-picked candidate and voting for a Labour maverick who appeared to be at logger-heads with Blair and his government.

However, despite the unconditional support given to Livingstone by most of the revolutionary left at the time, this did not mean that the policies he stood for were in any way different from those implemented by Blair's government. Livingstone's "old Labour" language was certainly designed to give the impression that he stood against some of Blair's most unpopular policies, particularly his plans to part-privatise the London Underground. But he was always careful to remain sufficiently vague and business-friendly so as to avoid antagonising both the middle-class electorate and the City. This, together with Livingstone's past record in local government and in Parliament, provided clear enough evidence that workers had nothing to expect from his election victory.

Today, almost three years on, Livingstone has already started his campaign for next year's London election, in which he will stand once again as a so-called "anti-Blair independent", just as in 2000, following Labour's refusal to readmit him into its ranks.

This time round, however, working class voters will be able to judge Livingstone not just on his anti-Blair posturing but also on his recent record in office.

Significantly, Livingstone seems to have chosen as a showcase for his administration the introduction of his new "congestion charge", which is already being hailed as a "success". But what a showcase! One which is so socially biassed that it effectively taxes the poorest out of the streets of Central London!

Obviously, Livingstone is more concerned with middle-class votes than with those of low-paid workers - let alone with their actual interests. And this is not just reflected in this "congestion charge". Beneath the mayor's occasional superficial demagogy, the same can be said of his entire record in office. So much so, that Nicky Gavron, Livingstone's Blairite deputy mayor and main rival in next year's election, wrote a few months ago in Tribune that "a Labour mayor would be hard pressed to do more than Ken Livingstone to implement Government policy." What better tribute could Livingstone have hoped for from his alleged arch-enemies?

Clearing the streets for Jags and Mercs

Long before it was introduced on 17 February, it was argued that Livingstone's "congestion charge" would be a "poll tax on wheels" - a reference to Thatcher's ill-famed poll tax which played a major part in her downfall, back in the early 1990s. And rightly so, because there is no other way to characterise a tax charging a flat rate of £5/day to all car drivers in Central London, regardless of whether they are driving in to attend a board meeting at £1,000+ a session or to clean railway carriages on £4.60 an hour.

This charge may well represent next to nothing for the large numbers of professionals who work in Central London, with their comfortable salaries, not to mention for the fat cats themselves. The odds are that Livingstone's environmental posturing costs much less to these people than the usual round of drinks they enjoy after work in their favourite wine bars.

But what about the low-paid workers at the other end of the wage scale? For them, this daily "congestion charge" amounts to an unaffordable 10% or so wage cut - and much more for part-timers. Yet tens of thousands of these low-paid workers have no choice but to drive into town because they work unsocial hours - nights, early or late shifts - in the post office or the NHS, in the railways or the Underground, in the security or cleaning industries and in a host of other vital areas. What alternative do they have? That of using London's sparse network of unpredictable and overcrowded night buses, which does not even cover the whole of Central London, let alone beyond? Yes, but at the cost of adding long walks to their journey to and from work and multiplying their travel times by a factor of 3, at least - as if their working days were not long enough as it is!

But, in fact, a much larger section of London workers are badly affected by Livingstone's "coup", including among those working normal office hours. The vast majority cannot afford a £25 cut in their weekly income, even when they are on average wages. Those who have been able to use parking facilities at work so far will now have to commute by public transport. Never mind the fact that many of these workers have been pushed very far out of Greater London due to rocketing housing costs and that, as a result, the length of their journeys to work already verges on madness! Now that Livingstone has effectively banned them from the streets of Central London, they will have to scramble into overcrowded tubes and buses to complete their journeys.

And yet, if it were not for these workers, London would be brought to a standstill. But for Livingstone, they just do not exist. Just as they do not exist for the government which did not consider that non-skilled workers should be eligible for the "affordable homes" set aside for so-called "vital workers" (only teachers, doctors, policemen and skilled nurses seem to be "vital" according to Blair!) The truth is that both Livingstone and Blair take workers for granted, relying on the fact that most of them have to take whatever job they can find and manage to get into work come what may, regardless of the difficulties, because there are not all that many jobs going and they need the money.

It is significant in this respect that, even at an early stage of Livingstone's "democratic consultation" in preparation for the introduction of the congestion charge, there was never any question of granting London workers any kind of exemption - unless, of course, they were among those who happened to live in the charging zone itself and, as such, benefited from a 90% rebate. Nor was there any suggestion that employers could be required to pay the charge on behalf of their workforces - which, after all, would only be common sense, since the bosses would make no profits if workers did not turn up for work!

But while workers' interests carry very little weight in Livingstone's choices, his attitude towards companies has proved much more benevolent. His initial consultative paper asked "whether the structure of charges should make a distinction between different classes of vehicle to reflect their relative impact on congestion, pollution, and wear and tear of the roads." And it went on to suggest "a higher charge of £15 [per day] for heavy goods vehicles." No-one knows what happened during the consultation process but one can only guess that the supermarket and delivery lobby has been persuasive enough to convince Livingstone that he should forget about the ecological disaster caused by huge lorries crawling through the middle of Central London. Indeed, on 17 February it turned out that there was to be no distinction between ordinary cars and heavy vehicles. The only surcharge which was imposed on company fleets (regardless of the size and nature of their vehicles) was a 50p additional fee for the privilege of paying the charge monthly instead of having to go through the hassle of daily payments!

Green demagogy and collapsing transport

According to official figures, the introduction of the "congestion charge", on 17 February, reduced traffic by 20% in Central London. Livingstone's office and most newspapers marvelled at the fact that buses had to slow down in order to avoid running ahead of schedule. There were some glitches - for instance rumours about thousands of cars being unduly fined. But the papers which dared to report these rumours were immediately threatened with the courts. So the charging operation has remained concealed behind a thick veil of secrecy, thereby allowing Livingstone to boast about his environmental "victory". No wonder! After all, London has a large middle-class constituency which is very receptive to this sort of language - and Livingstone has been wooing its votes all along.

But what Livingstone cannot conceal, neither with his environmentalist rhetoric nor with the threat of the courts, is the collapsing state of public transport.

No-one will dispute that ending London's permanent traffic jams - and even getting rid of all individual means of transportation for that matter, including the Jags and the Mercs - would be a good thing for everyone. But only provided public transport is cheap, fast and comfortable, and allows people to go everywhere they need to go in town. And also provided many large free car parks are made available in the outskirts instead of the few exorbitantly expensive ones which are available at present.

Livingstone does not deny this. Back in 2000, he even chose to make the dire state of London's public transport a main focus of his election campaign. And today he claims that the purpose of his "congestion charge" is precisely to provide the funding required to improve it. Except that this is putting the cart before the horse and imposing unacceptable conditions on working people by forcing them to trek around in a collapsing system.

Ironically, but quite significantly, the "congestion charge" was introduced just as one of London's main Underground lines, the Central line, had been closed down, together with another smaller one, following a derailment which revealed that Tube managers had known for a long time that the trains running on both lines had a serious fault. Hundreds of thousands of passengers were forced to take long detours in even more overcrowded trains and buses due to these closures. But this did not stop Livingstone from going ahead with his tax and imposing on commuters the "choice" between extortion if they drove in by car or being treated like cattle on public transport.

Nor does it prevent Livingstone from boasting about his record of improvement in public transport, or at least bus services. According to his own figures, the number of bus passengers has increased by 8.5%. This increase is officially attributed to more buses being put on the roads and reductions in some bus fares. Maybe so. But what Livingstone fails to mention is that the prime reason for many people to use buses is that the Tube has become so expensive that they just cannot afford it. So that rather than reflecting an improvement in bus services, the increased number of passengers probably reflects, at least to some degree, the decreasing standard of living of the working class population of Greater London!

The part-privatisation saga

Talking about public transport, what has happened to Livingstone's pledge, made during the 2000 election campaign, to do everything in his power to stop Blair's part-privatisation of the London Underground?

It should be recalled that Blair's part-privatisation of the Underground involves the dividing up of its infrastructure between three "infrastructure companies" or Infracos. A public company overseen by the London Mayor, Transport for London, will remain in charge of passenger services and safety. The theory, according to Blair, is that the Infracos, which will all be privatised, will inject large amounts of private funding to modernise the service in return for a long-term guaranteed income from fares and state subsidies for their maintenance work. So far, one Infraco has been handed over to a consortium involving, among others, the US construction giant Bechtel and British companies such as Amey, Hyder and Jarvis. The second one should be handed over in the Spring to another consortium involving Adtranz, Balfour Beatty, WS Atkins, Thames Water and Seaboard. The preferred bidder for the third Infraco has yet to be announced.

In other words, this part-privatisation will more or less replicate the structure of today's railway system - except that tube train services will remain in public hands. But the same mind-boggling system of bureaucracy, conciliation, litigation, targets, regulation and fines is supposed to ensure that the system operates with "optimum cost-efficiency and reliability". And, of course, the whole system has been designed to allow the private contractors to make a minimum profit. The record of the railways shows already what this all means! And the catalogue of criminal failures which were revealed by the derailment which occurred on the Central Line in January, before the part-privatisation of this line, but after three years of "shadow-operation" (i.e. mimicking the future operation after part-privatisation), gives a foretaste of what is in store.

No wonder the vast majority of London commuters were hostile to this project. And Livingstone pledge to fight it certainly won him a significant number of votes at the time of his election.

However, the "determined" campaign he had promised has been confined to a long series of court cases, which have all been lost. Eventually an agreement was announced at the beginning of this year, whereby Livingstone gave up his last legal channel - the European court of justice - in return for the promise of a substantial one-off subsidy to the Underground when he takes over control at some point before the end of the year.

Of course, this was predictable, since fighting the part- privatisation in the courts required catching Blair out on a technicality or proving that he was breaking laws which had been designed precisely to allow this kind of subcontracting. So Livingstone cannot be blamed for his failure to win the battle in the courts, but rather for his choice to confine himself to the courts, knowing full well that this was a dead end, while telling Londoners that he was taking care of everything for them.

But of course, this was a political choice on Livingstone's part. Using a vague "radical" image from the past to stand out and gain votes from a section of the electorate is one thing, being seen mobilising commuters against a government policy is quite another!

Indeed, while the court proceedings were going ahead, safely hidden from the scrutiny of commuters, there was no attempt whatsoever on the part of Livingstone to call on them to put pressure on the government to drop its plans.

Moreover, when Underground workers first threatened to take strike action over safety issues - a serious concern given the record of private companies - the mayor's office made a point of condemning their planned action. In fact, far from building on the militancy of Underground workers, Livingstone proved more preoccupied with demonstrating his "efficiency" as their future employer - for instance, last October, when he got the Underground unions to cancel a planned stoppage and postpone a wage claim until this Spring, when they will come under his authority.

But it must be said also that, in reality, there was not a world of difference between Livingstone's proposals for the Underground and Blair's policy anyway. The main difference had to do with the kind of role that private capital should play in the Tube, rather than whether private capital had a role to play in it.

Blair wanted to modernise the Underground by getting private capital to invest in new equipment in exchange for future profits. This, of course, involved a risk to safety as well as to the quality of services. Livingstone argued for the Underground to remain entirely in public hands, but for its modernisation to be funded by the issue of bonds on the money market. And to reassure the banks which would be prepared to assist, Livingstone head-hunted Bob Kiley, the former head of New York's tube and an alleged expert in this field. However, Livingstone's formula still meant that the Underground's chronic cost-cutting would go on, in order to please its lenders and repay its debt and interest. Of course the whole system would remain in one piece and profit sharks would only interfere indirectly, through the lenders, which is certainly preferable to Blair's part-privatisation.

However neither plan resolves the main problem of finding the enormous amount of capital required for the top-to-bottom modernisation needed by the Underground - an amount that Blair's private companies will not invest because it involves too many risks and that no government will allow the Underground to borrow, in order to avoid undermining its own credit rating.

In reality, the problems facing the Underground are identical to those facing every area of the public services. The government's choice to use the public purse in order to boost private profit in many different ways, means that less and less of it is available for public services. There is no shortage of wealth in society. However this wealth has to be taken from where it is, in the coffers of the large companies and the bank accounts of big shareholders. And in the case of public transport, just as in the case of the "congestion charge" as mentioned before, would it not make sense to impose on the bosses, whose workforce is delivered to their doors every day by public transport and publicly-funded roads, a special contribution towards them?

Of course, there was never any such suggestion in Livingstone's programme for public transport - Livingstone has never had any intention of upsetting the City. But there was nothing either in this programme which could really improve the decrepit state of transport, thereby providing a focus for a mass campaign to stop Blair's plans, not just for the sake of it, but in order to go further. But then, of course, this was also a political choice.

The "London Plan"

The other "showcase" that Livingstone intends to put to the fore in next year's election is a grandiose 400-page document originally published last year as the "The London Plan".

This plan purports to map out the future of London until 2016, no less, meaning that Livingstone certainly wants to show that he is there to stay. It is based on the assumption that within the 13 years to come, London will have to accommodate 700,000 more people in 459,000 new homes and create workplace capacity for 636,000 jobs. Where do these figures come from? No-one knows, except that they are "extrapolated" from London's past development in the 1980s - including therefore, the ballooning expansion of the South East during the de- industrialisation of the North, which makes such extrapolation slightly dubious.

Be that as it may, the London Plan does its very best to please just about everyone who might be willing to read such literature. It promises not to build on the green belt but only on disused brown field sites, along the corridors to Gatwick and Stansted airports as well as in the East End of London. It also promises not to repeat the catastrophic experience of the "sink" estates of the 1960s-70s, which were built before any collective facility was available locally and often remained without proper transport and even schools for many years, and sometimes forever. But from this point of view there is not much difference between this London Plan and the plan announced a few months ago by Prescott himself.

Of course, what Livingstone's plan fails to say is that he does not actually have any power to implement it. In fact the only budget over which he has any real power is that of the Metropolitan Police (except that the Home Office can always force him to increase it). But for the other main budgets administered by the Mayor, it is the government that defines their size and they are strictly ring-fenced against the Mayor and the Greater London Assembly, which can only operate within the limits decided by ministers. In the case of housing, the powers of the GLA are even more limited since it has virtually no budget of its own for this. In fact its only powers are to provide planning guidelines to local authorities and act as coordinator between them for very large projects.

Nor has this London Plan much to say regarding the large number of working class households living in Greater London who are experiencing increasing difficulties in finding or retaining a home. Since Labour came into office, six years ago, house prices in London have doubled to reach an average £214,000. Paying a mortgage on a home even half that price, which would usually be only a tiny flat, is beyond the means of a large section of working class families. At the same time the number of homeless households in London alone reaches record levels, at 80,000 - and this is without taking into account asylum seekers and their families who are now left out of the official head count.

Indeed, a large number of new homes, both of good quality and at cheap rents, are desperately needed for the low-paid, the homeless, pensioners, etc.. But where are they going to come from?

Prescott's plan mentions a "target" of 15% of so- called "affordable homes" in the entire new housing stock, although it does not provide for actual mechanisms to enforce this target. But in fact what it means by this, is a mixture of homes for buying on subsidised mortgages and rented homes owned and managed by housing associations or similar registered "social landlords" whose rents are not always affordable by any means.

Livingstone's London Plan overbids Prescott by setting a target of 50% for "affordable homes" among new houses, but without putting into question the Blair and Prescott travesty of an "affordable home" nor their policy of stopping the direct building of new social housing by councils and disposing of the old stock.

Nor does Livingstone say anything about the on-going scandal of the large numbers of properties, both public and private, which are permanently empty in Greater London - either because they are not fit to live in, due to owners being short of funds, or because their owners maintain them but choose to keep them empty, ready to be sold or used at any time. Livingstone may not have a housing budget as such, but as a planning authority the GLA has the right and the leverage to resolve such situations to the advantage of potential tenants. Except, of course, that once again such moves would not be likely to please the middle-class electorate that Livingstone aims at and would probably put him on a collision course with the government.

But once again, this is a matter of political choice. Just as it is a matter of political choice for Livingstone, first to recruit over one thousand new policemen in his first year in office (although he would probably have been forced to do it anyway by the government) and to be boasting now of putting even more police on the streets, at a time when Blunkett is encouraging a de facto return to the stop-and-search practices which sparked off the inner-city riots two decades ago.

Livingstone's political choice is no more to side with working people and the jobless than Blair's. These two may be rivals and, as a result, they may use a different kind of language occasionally, if only to justify their rivalry. But they are really competing for the same role as loyal trustees of the City. However, within their rivalry there is also a division of labour (no pun!). The "congestion charge" was a scheme that Labour has had in its bottom drawer for some time without Blair being prepared to push it himself. Now Livingstone has done it for him. And there may be more to come.

1 March 2003