Politics again, sorry (New Labour rant this time)

So. Jeremy Corbyn is now leader of the Labour Party. I have some mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it’s certainly nice that there’s finally a major UK party leader who has fairly similar political views to my own, something I don’t feel I’ve ever experienced before. But I have to admit I also worry in case all the warnings about him making Labour unelectable and leaving us with Tory governments for all eternity turn out to be correct.

If that does happen, though, I do feel that the so-called “moderates” and Blairites in the party really have no-one to blame but themselves. If they’d actually behaved like the “moderates” they claim to be rather than like a very, very slightly milder version of the Tory party, maybe Corbyn wouldn’t have won a landslide.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with being a moderate, being a realist, compromising where necessary, trying to appeal to a broader range of voters, and so on. Those things all have their place and are probably necessary to some extent in a party of government. But in my opinion, Labour has gone far beyond that over the last twenty years. I would consider myself a natural Labour voter, and if I’d been old enough to vote during the 70s and 80s I probably would have voted for them then. As it is, the first general election I was able to vote in was 2001… and I’ve never yet been able to bring myself to vote Labour.

Trying to broaden the party’s appeal to people who weren’t traditionally Labour supporters, as Tony Blair did, was a sensible idea. But not if it meant abandoning the people who were already on your side… and as someone who considers myself a moderate left winger, I certainly did feel abandoned as New Labour introduced more and more policies that were in many cases actually further to the right than the preceeding Tory administrations. Tuition fees… privatisations… unnecessary wars… benefit sanctions… outsourcing of fitness-for-work tests to the monstrously incompetent ATOS… the Private Finance Initiative scam… I could go on, but you get the idea.

At least in the early days of New Labour, they did some good stuff as well, like introducing the minimum wage, and devolution for Scotland and Wales. These days the whole right of the party seems to regard traditional left wing voters as a nuisance, as naive, backward-looking troublemakers who have to be scolded and lectured like naughty children until they see the error of their ways. And then they wonder why they lost 40 of their 41 Scottish seats to the SNP, and why the grassroots party members voted in huge numbers for a leader who’s about as far removed from New Labour as anyone in the party.

Here’s an idea (although it’s too late to put it into practise this time round, I’m afraid): instead of constantly attacking Corbyn, why didn’t you, y’know, actually offer some sort of positive alternative that people might want to vote for instead? If Corbyn is really as big a disaster as you were all claiming, surely it wouldn’t have been difficult to explain why, and put forward someone who was clearly better?

But instead of any sort of reasoned critique of Corbyn’s policies, we just got a load of vague terms of abuse… “unelectable”, “extremist”, “hard left”, “taking us back to the 1970s”, and so on. Most of the articles I read from senior Labour figures focussed almost exclusively on the unelectability aspect. Now, I can see that as an insider in the party, it’s obviously very important to you to get elected. But as a voter, I don’t just want you to get elected for the sake of it. I want you to get elected and then do something positive with that power. I’m not going to vote for you just because you might be a little bit less bad than the Tories. I want to know what you’re planning to do about rising levels of poverty and inequality, the increasingly unaffordable cost of housing, the creeping privatisation of the NHS, and other issues that are important to me. Then, if I like what you’re suggesting, I might vote for you.

As for “extremist” and “hard left”… yes, maybe compared with the current political landscape in the UK, but if you step outside that narrow viewpoint and look to other similar countries, or back a couple of decades in the UK itself, Corbyn’s policies start to look quite moderate. Nationalise the railways? We had nationalised railways less than twenty years ago, and numerous European countries still do (and it’s worth mentioning that this one is very popular with the electorate as well). Free higher education? Scotland still has it, so do lots of other countries, so did the rest of the UK until relatively recently. A 50p top tax rate? We had that as recently as 2012, and it was significantly higher than that throughout most of Thatcher’s premiership. No nuclear weapons? The vast majority of countries don’t have them and it doesn’t seem to cause them any problems.

The fact that policies like these are now apparently considered “extreme left” by senior figures in the Labour Party is something I find very alarming, and it makes me think we could do with someone who’s going to drag the centre ground back towards some kind of sanity before it moves any further off to the right. Alternatively, if they really think all of that is now “extreme” and “unworkable”, they’re going to have to explain why, because I’m not seeing it.

I think what annoys me the most is when words like “modernisation” are tossed around, when it now seems to invariably mean things constantly getting more and more right wing. I’ve got no objection to parties updating their policies to be more relevant to the world as it is now. But I do object when “modernisation” always means more privatisations, more cuts to public services, more deregulation, and generally life getting more difficult for the majority as money gets siphoned up to the already-fabulously-rich minority. If that’s the sort of policies you really want to pursue, then fine. But, unless you’re going to actually explain why, stop pretending it’s somehow inevitable and even desirable. Stop pretending you still hold the principles of the Labour Party. And stop expecting people with left wing views to vote for you just because you’re wearing a red rosette.

One last thing: if you think the SNP did so well just because of nationalism, think again. I’m about the least nationalistic person imaginable… I see national borders as a sort of necessary evil. I’d be quite happy living in an independent Scotland, a United Kingdom, or even a United States of Europe as long as it worked well for the people living there. I voted SNP because I liked the policies they were offering (like free higher education, free prescriptions, no NHS privatisation, strong environmental protections, strong infrastructure investment programme, attempting to protect people from the worst effects of the Tories’ welfare cuts). The sort of policies I’ve always hoped to see from Labour but have always been disappointed. While Scottish Labour seemed to do nothing but moan about how we can’t afford any of that, the SNP got on with actually making it work, and have mostly done a pretty good job in my opinion, even within the limits of Holyrood’s current powers.

If you think more of the sort of negativity that basically lost you Scotland would have won you the next UK election, then fair enough. But I wouldn’t bet on it myself. I’ve seen a lot of people say “Oh, but Scotland’s very different from the rest of the UK, it’s much more left wing”. I’m not convinced. Historically it’s actually been fairly similar to the rest of the UK – if you look at past maps of election results, you’ll see a lot of blue in Scotland during the 1980s when the Tories were riding high, and similarly a lot of red during New Labour’s time in Government. It’s only relatively recently that the Scottish political landscape has started looking very different. Maybe the difference is not so much in the views people hold, but in the choices available to vote for.

Cycling

I’ve been enjoying cycling to work lately. It’s only about 3 miles from the new flat, so easily do-able. (The old one was 7 miles away. I suppose that’s also do-able in theory, but not for someone as lazy and unfit as me 😉 ). It’s got more enjoyable since I replaced practically every part of my rusty old bike that could be replaced. Previously, going uphill made me feel like I was going to die of exhaustion, going downhill made me feel like I was going to die if something pulled out in front of me because the brakes weren’t very good, and going along on the flat made me realise I must in fact be dreaming because, as you quickly discover once you start cycling, there aren’t any flat bits in Edinburgh.

Since I started cycling, I’ve noticed 3 things:

  1. There aren’t any flat bits in Edinburgh. No really, there aren’t. Even the streets that seem pretty flat when you’re driving or on foot turn out not to be once you have to cycle on them. (I know I mentioned this already, but it seemed annoying enough to be worth mentioning twice).
  2. People really don’t expect cyclists to stop for them at zebra crossings! When I approach the crossing near my work in the car, people step out in front, expecting me to stop (quite rightly). But when I cycle up to it, they come to an abrupt halt on the pavement and look nervous, then look amazed when I actually do stop to let them cross. They smile and wave and thank me as if I’ve done them a great favour.
  3. At the smallest mention of cycling, some people will start practically frothing at the mouth and immediately coming out with “They should have to pay road tax!”, “They should be prosecuted when they go through red lights!!”, “They should have to pass a test!!!”, “They should be fined for riding on the pavement!!!!”. And so on.

It’s probably evil of me, but it amuses me no end when people get worked up about stuff like this. Their reaction just seems out of all proportion to what provoked it. What on earth, for example, would be the point in charging cyclists road tax? What material difference would it make to anyone else? I could be a smart-arse and point out that motorists don’t pay “road tax” either, they pay Vehicle Excise Duty, or that the roads are funded through general taxation rather than anything specific to road users. Instead I’ll just point out that the level of tax paid is now based on emissions per kilometre, and cyclists don’t cause pollution so it seems completely fair and reasonable to me that they don’t pay the tax. Zero-emission (and very low emission) cars don’t have to pay it either.

Going back a few years, the criteria was engine size. Pushbikes don’t have engines so there was no reason to charge them under the old rules either. Even if you based the tax levels on amount of wear and tear caused to the roads I’d be surprised if the damage caused by pedal cyclists was even measurable at all compared to what cars, lorries and buses do. It’s probably more on a par with the wear caused by pedestrians and no-one seems to be suggesting charging them to walk on the pavements or cross the roads. In fact I’m struggling to see any sort of reasonable objective criteria that would justify charging cyclists road tax. Emissions doesn’t work, engine size doesn’t work, wear and tear doesn’t work… maybe “how much they piss off Jeremy Clarkson” would, but that’s about it.

Don’t get me wrong… I’m a frequent driver myself and I know how easy it is to get wound up by people (pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers alike) doing stupid things on the roads. But I don’t feel the need to demand that whole groups of road users be punished through legislation just for annoying me. Yes, it’s irritating to see cyclists sneaking through a red light or along a pavement when you’re stuck in a jam, and maybe it seems like a double standard that they can usually get away with it and you can’t. But you have to get some perspective. Cars are massively more dangerous than bikes are – a recklessly ridden bike is annoying and sometimes inconvenient, but a recklessly driven car can be terrifying and life-threatening. Driving a car through a pedestrianised area, or going through red lights, or driving after a few drinks can very easily land innocent bystanders in hospital or worse. That’s why you need to pass a test before driving a car and why breaking those rules will get you fined or banned. Doing the same things on a bike, while inadvisable, is pretty unlikely to cause serious harm to anyone except the cyclist themselves. That’s why you DON’T need to pass a test before riding a bike and why the rules are not enforced so strictly. It seems quite reasonable to me.

Besides, would you really want all the traffic laws to be enforced strictly all the time? For fairness you’d have to enforce them at least as strictly against cars. Some people would claim that the laws are already enforced with an iron fist against the poor beleaguered motorist, but it’s easy to see that that’s not quite true. If you drive at 31MPH in a town, or 71MPH on a motorway, do you always get a ticket for it? No, although it’s technically illegal, in practise you almost never get a ticket until you’re over the limit by quite a generous margin. If you park on a pavement or on a double yellow line in a quiet residential street but aren’t actually causing an obstruction, do you always get fined? Again, no… I’ve done it plenty of times and never been fined yet. The truth is, motorists get away with a lot of minor infractions that are theoretically against the rules but in practise aren’t likely to hurt anyone. Seems fair enough then if cyclists do too.

In the end, forcing cyclists to pay tax and pass tests, or punishing them for every trivial, harmless technical violation would just discourage people from cycling, and that would be a bad thing. Cycling has a lot of advantages… it’s healthy, it’s non-polluting, it saves fuel, it cuts congestion, and it’s much safer for other road users. We should be encouraging it, not discouraging it, because everyone benefits indirectly if more people cycle.

And anyway, if you’re still convinced cyclists get much better treatment, there’s an easy solution… bikes aren’t that expensive… come join us ;).