Some friends of mine have been sharing a Labour election video on Facebook. The 15-second video claims that the next Labour government will make bus travel free for under-25s in England before telling people, “Get on board and vote Labour on Thursday 3 May”. This is a misleading advert, for a number of reasons, because it makes promises that Labour cannot deliver in the forthcoming election and may not still be part of their policy by the time of the next general election.
First: a local council cannot deliver something as radical as free bus travel for as many people as all under-25s. That is something that would cost a lot of money, and requires intervention from central government. Their powers are circumscribed, and they can in any case only influence fares on bus services which they run or subsidise. This is not the case for many services, especially outside major cities, which are run by private companies and others are run by a neighbouring local authority (e.g. Transport for London sponsored bus services in Surrey, such as the K3 and 405).
Second, you will not be voting for a government on the 3rd of May this year. You are voting for a council in your county, borough or district (a full list of which councils have elections can be found here). A Labour council cannot deliver a Labour government. The results of these elections may have an influence on the following general election, such as prompting policy or even leadership changes in one or other party, perhaps including Labour. But who you vote for next month will only affect the people on your county or borough council, which has specific functions. It cannot make laws but must disburse a budget for specific things such as education, social work, social care, waste disposal and recycling, road maintenance and so on. So, your vote on 3rd May cannot deliver the policy in the video.
Third, the Labour leadership will be asked, if this policy is still in its manifesto come the next election, how they intend to pay for this. When a large cohort of young adults are going to be relieved of having to pay for bus fares, it will cost a lot of money which will have to come from somewhere because running a bus service costs money for fuel, wages, maintenance and so on. The money will have to come either from a tax rise or from cutting something else which no doubt the party will say is unimportant but others may well disagree. They may say something about cutting bureaucracy or dead wood somewhere; this means they will sack a whole lot of people or abolish a service that some people might value, or put pressure on council workers or civil servants to do more in the same time and for the same money. There is only so far you can take this policy: it causes stress, and causes people to leave the profession which causes the service to break down. If you have a relative who is a teacher or nurse, you will be aware that they are doing a lot of paperwork and may be working from home after their school hours finish; this is because the government has imposed more and more of this on them over the years.
If you live in the city, you may not be aware that outside the city bus services are sparse. Many areas have very limited bus services and often they run along main routes but do not branch off into the back lanes, meaning if you live in a village you might not have a bus service at all. In the city, bus services often run every five or ten minutes, or more; in rural areas, they often run every half-hour or less, or there are a few every day, and none in the evening. In many rural areas, old “cast-off” buses that were displaced from London and other major cities when new accessible buses were introduced in the early 2000s are still in use. People who live in these places will not appreciate being asked to pay for free bus rides for people in areas far better served by public transport than they have been for years. Perhaps Labour will promise to restore bus services at public expense, but this will also need to be paid for and in areas surrounding cities where many wealthy commuters with multiple cars live, a lot of people will not feel the need for vastly improved bus services. They may remember the “old buses” from the 1980s and before and say “we don’t want them back”, even though this may not be the intention.
This promise is a kind of policy Labour had before Blair called “tax and spend”. This means what it says: tax people’s earnings and spend it on services. The problem is that many people do not want to pay for services they do not receive, and will never receive. Sometimes this objection is selfish, but people do not want to look at their payslips and find that a large section has been taken away by the government to benefit someone else. Sometimes they have good reason. On one occasion, the then Greater London Council tried to use everyone’s rates (the local council tax of the time) to pay for reduced fares on the London Underground but were challenged in court by the London Borough of Bromley, which is in south-east London and is miles from the nearest Tube station at its nearest point. The borough won. If you are a first-time voter you will not remember these things; they happened in the 1980s but there are lots of people who remember them. For better or worse, the government then got people used to paying much less tax than they had before and they will not want to go back.
Labour are wrong to tell people to vote in a council election on the basis of a policy only a Labour government can deliver. It is of course important to vote, but you must know what your council can do and what each party’s policies are locally. The next general election will be some time in the next four years and that is the only election that can deliver a Labour government, or any other, and give Labour the power to deliver the sorts of radical changes they are talking about. You will not get free bus rides for under-25s with a Labour council this year.
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