OccupyLondon poster made me less supportive of the tube strike

TubeIt’s one thing for the RMT union to ask people to be reasonable and try to understand why they need to strike, in which case they should really be cogently outlining their demands and explaining why they have had to resort to strike action.

I agree with the theoretical principle of striking – it’s a necessary evil to prevent Government from steamrolling over the rights of the workers. But striking is supposed to be the nuclear arsenal of the moral high-ground, not touted about at first opportunity like a … well, a Cold War nuclear arsenal.

This sign, however, is the worst kind of counterproductively vapid, populist politicking imaginable and RMT should be ashamed of stooping so low.

Let’s deal with the “claims” of this poster sequentially, shall we?

  1. Ticket machines take cash. There’s little difference, then, between manned service booths and ticket machines, except that one has higher running costs (whilst admittedly providing a job) and the other is faster, more convenient and doesn’t inflict its bad mood and haughty rudeness at you when you’re already late, stressed and feeling shitty.*
  2. Yes, the machines sometimes go out of service. In all the circumstances I’ve experienced this, no member of the underground team has been on-hand to fix them or man the ticket booth. Furthermore, doing away with ticket booths won’t do away with maintenance engineers.
  3. There are already many rail stations on the Oyster network which have ticket machines that can top up your card, but where staff members can’t update your Oyster card. When the machine breaks, they shrug. So no change there, either.
  4. TFL have regularly deducted too much money from my bank card, and I have yet to see any refund or genuine attempt to rectify this mistake from TFL staff. The existence of on-hand staff had no effect whatsoever, save to piss me off – because when I informed them about it they told me to phone the hotline. The hotline told me to email. The email response sent me an itemised list of my Oyster usage, with overcharging clear as day (totalling £26 in one month), but conveniently had no record of this when I emailed them back the same PDF a day later and asked for a refund. I fail to see in what way ticket booth operators have any influence over the Oyster network’s failings and abysmal customer service.
  5. Paragraph two is a farce. There are already countless delays to the tube service. Neither drivers nor in-station staff have anything to do with resolving this. At most, a driver will apologise for the delay when you’re stuck inside a tunnel. I’m fairly sure a pre-recorded voice could do that.
  6. Equally, staff cannot and do not prevent the “accidents, emergencies [and] incidents” that they so glibly ask future users to avoid. Regarding evacuations: this is why we have public address systems, evacuation notices and other signs – and emergency services, which will still be on standby in the event of some non-specific cataclysm; that’s what they’re there for. If the absence of TFL staff would mean fewer safety measures than anywhere else, the Health & Safety Executive would have a field day. This is scaremongering pure and simple.
  7. Trains drive themselves just fine on the DLR. Google can make cars navigate 435,000 miles of two-dimensional obstacles without incident; I’m fairly sure the technology exists to allow a train to move on a one-dimensional track and make fewer mistakes than a human.
  8. Disabled? I have yet to see an RMT member cure the sick and lame.
  9. Poor? I have definitely yet to see an RMT member alleviating someone of their poverty. First, at a basic £44,000 salary (plus perks), tube drivers earn a two-thirds greater salary than the average Londoner. Furthermore, I see a fundamental contradiction between using the stress of the job and the unsociable hours as a reason to justify the high salary, whilst simultaneously defending such jobs as absolutely necessary, in the face of overwhelming technological evidence to the contrary. After all, a tube driver’s basic is twice that of a newly-qualified airline pilot, which has much higher training costs and similar work stresses, and the only working driverless plane ever seen was in the spoof film Airplane!.
  10. New to London? Bless. Join the throngs of Londoners and others travelling to other metropolises and having to discern foreign transportation systems on their own. But seriously, buy a map. Or download a FREE app to your phone. Or look at one of the many maps on all tube stations. Or ask ANYONE.
  11. Young or old? I have yet to see an RMT member accelerate someone’s growth, or provide an elixir of youth.
  12. Harassed? Naturally, the only people in London who would step in to help someone being assaulted or harassed are members of the Underground Team, single-handedly defending London’s streets from incivility. Please.
  13. Lucky number 13, this is the only one I may be willing to concede would be possibly made worse by not having so many staff on hand. But it’s sad to say, property and children get lost and/or taken in London all the time.
  14. Please provide assistance.*
  15. This poster contains no advice. This is (in this penultimate paragraph, sequentially) glib and sarcastic commentary, a statement of impotence, and a callous disregard for others’ feelings. So no change there, then.*

I say again – I’m not against striking in general. Teachers’ unions? Yes. Firefighters? Probably. But the RMT? Instead of this populist diatribe, OccupyLondon and RMT should be publicising their history of negotiations with Boris if they want to garner public support. Then we’ll see who’s being unreasonable. But, admittedly, even before this poster they had a long road ahead before they’d convince me of their need to exist.

Yes, these changes will come at a loss of thousands of jobs. Yes, that’s unfortunate. But that in itself is not (or should not be) enough of a reason to strike on this side of the Channel. The money saved will go onto urgent modernisation of the tube system (parts of which are a century old) and, in the long run, free up capital for jobs elsewhere – with a faster way of reaching them.

* I will make one small edit: there was once a very nice person who works for TFL and who helped me once at Farringdon station. He stood at the intersection between underground and rail entrances, knew every connection from that station imaginable. Good for him.

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Rest in Peace, Tony Benn

Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn has passed away today aged 88. It is a poignant commentary on British politics that Ed Miliband has praised him in memoriam as a “conviction politician”. He’s right, of course; but it speaks volumes that this is used as a curiously refreshing and distinguishing feature.

Tony Benn

Tony Benn was man born into privilege who, on the strength of his convictions, fought the establishment (left, right and centre) for the right to be treated as an ordinary member of the public. He railed against inequity and privilege, he championed the rights of the poor and the downtrodden, he never ceased to advocate his vision for a compassionate and socially equitable Britain, and he shall be missed.

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I’ve just got to get this one off my chest

One of the main reasons for starting this blog was my fury at the way in which the Yes To Fairer Votes campaign threw away the most (and possibly only) promising opportunity to effect meaningful political change in the UK. Their failure at the AV Referendum in 2011 pretty much sealed my disaffection with party politics, and here I explain what could have happened.

Armando Ianucci, the heroic genius mind behind The Thick Of It and In The Loop, wrote a marvellously impassioned treatise in the Independent’s election issue. Katie Ghose could have used it in her campaign months earlier instead of going negative (turning the entire referendum into a political mud-slinging match). Unfortunately for sane liberals everywhere, it was published in a newspaper whose readership was – in all likelihood – going to vote yea anyway.

During the 2010 general election, there was really only one question to be answered: ‘which party/leader is most capable of dealing with the economy?’ That was it. The economy. It was undoubtedly important – and the various parties did indeed have differing views as to how to solve it – but nowhere in the leaders’ debates was anything else mentioned unless it was ancillary to reducing the national debt. Healthcare, currying foreign investment, transportation and Trident were all discussed, but only through the lens of how much they would cost. I don’t remember the foreign ministers having a debate – anybody catch it? Aspiring home secretaries didn’t duel it out on TV over prisons and sentencing policy, nor can I recall seeing prospective environment ministers holding forth about our ratio of renewable energy. Now we have a coalition government for which no one directly voted (one vote each, chaps and chapesses) claiming a wide mandate pieced together from their respective manifestos, when all The People actually did was answer, “whose numbers seem to add up the best?”

I am sick and tired of being offered the choice between a meagre handful of parties on just one particular issue: that which has been deemed the most salient topic of the day come a general election. Subjects declared to be of lesser significance are merely side effects of choosing between representatives based on the single major issue. In 2005 it was the war in Iraq. Back in 1992, the electorate went to the polls to say whether or not it approved of John Major’s leadership. Elections throughout the 1970s were dominated by miners’ concerns and discussions of the relative bargaining rights of trades unions.

The two or three major parties are typically either united on a given issue, giving no freedom to disagree and still make one’s voice heard, or so wildly divergent on entire groups of issues that voters must choose the least unattractive package deal. I am passionately in favour of a more proportionally representative electoral system, as it would allow so-called ‘factions’ of the three major parties – who agree on most issues (those governing their party allegiances) but who ‘rebel’ as their Whips order them to vote against their personal principles – to decentralise into separate parties.

Just as the world is made up of more than three colours, so should be politics. The dividing lines that so often cause tensions, rebellions, resignations, expulsions or even defections within a party would instead become the decisive factors upon which the electorate should be allowed to make an informed choice. Who can honestly say that they have always agreed with every single policy of a given party throughout their voting lifetime? Elections would be very different and drastically duller affairs if that were the case.

How many people feel trapped between two or more parties, agreeing with the economic policies of one party with the social policies of another? How many people wished they could vote for a party if it weren’t for the personal philosophies of that particular candidate?

Imagine what it would be like with more than one party on the left, middle and right. Imagine having the choice between, say, five parties you could generally support but who differ on the very so-called ‘minor’ issues you feel strongly about, that are never discussed under FPTP? You could vote for all five, and rank them in order! Wow, no more tactical voting! It wouldn’t matter that one party never reaches an absolute majority – in fact it would be marvellous. Governments would have to justify their policies to secure the votes of their allies, rather than relying on their Whips to call their backbenchers to heel. Bloc majorities would exist for certain ‘important’ issues, but would not guarantee any dominion over ancillary debates.

Europhile Conservatives would bloc vote with other Tories on issues of justice or education, but would be heard in chorus with liberals on issues of EU integration. As such, liberally minded, fiscally conservative voters would no longer have to decide between economics and foreign policy.

Equally, gone would be the days of Old Labour disenfranchisement with the post-1994 face of the political left: socialists would be free to advertise themselves as such, Marxists could come from the woodwork and expound the theories they really believe, the centre left would not feel constrained by trades unions dictating policy where they would rather listen to the voters, and the rife Brownite/Blairite factionalism that continues to besmirch the party image would be an irrelevance; a dispute deferred to the electorate.

Liberals, for their part, would no longer feel the need to align themselves on the left/right spectrum – instead, those for whom liberalism represents a social philosophy that transcends other political considerations could freely associate with members of the left or the right, without being defined by them: no more permanent slant from Social Democrats or role of political flak jacket for a Conservative-led ‘coalition’.

And finally, the voter would have more of a choice than the least of three evils on a single, pre-determined issue.

Boles Bowls Wide

The housing strategy proposed by Nick Boles, DCLG’s new planning minister, will irresponsibly destroy precious greenfield sites, whilst countless unused land remains in need of regeneration in the cities – precisely where it is needed most.

Nick has completely missed the mark. Confident in his self-assured quest to have single-handedly “solved the housing problem”, he has stridden into the road without looking both ways again and forgotten to consider anyone who may have an objection to him building on unspoiled land. As with its forest selloff U-turn debacle, the Coalition is once again showing its hand: Liberal Democrats failing to stand up for any of their principles as Conservatives belie their utter disregard for preserving the environment. Yes, we sorely need to create more – particularly affordable – housing, but why irrevocably tarnish natural beauty when we have brownfield sites littering the country and hundreds of thousands of homes lie vacant?

Instead, shouldn’t the government be working towards funding a large-scale housing project to buy up dilapidated urban areas and inner-city brownfield sites, and build twenty-first century urban hubs akin to Stratford’s Olympic Village? These, not cookie-cutter settlements on a newly thrown-up ring road, would be the “more beautiful” built environments Boles seems to champion. These would rejuvenate city centres whilst creating more housing where it is actually needed.

Instead of raising capital by pawning off our natural resources to our children’s irreparable disadvantage, we should increase taxes on luxury goods and impose a stricter stamp duty on a band of houses higher than that which currently exists. The punitive proposed ‘mansion tax’ should be scrapped. All it serves to do is overly affect the metropolitan middle classes, who are evidently to be punished for merely possessing the fiscal rectitude necessary to save for a mortgage in an urban environment with an elevated cost of living. Finances should instead be raised from taxing those who can afford to buy a premium car for their enjoyment as opposed so a household in suburban London that has two cars because both parents have to work.

Fascinating new developments in green technology and energy efficiency have arisen since a government last had such an undertaking, and we must now make the best of them. New building techniques now permit us to create aesthetically pleasing domiciles for our denizens, and finally we may now heed the sage advice of visionaries like Hundertwasser and Gaudi, a century ahead of their time in terms of using light and space to their fullest advantage. Small-scale community development works have done wonders in our cities, and forward-thinking architectural styles have been shown to pay dividends in places like Chicago’s riverbank, where successive schools have adapted new methods to work in harmony with existing structures.

When development is more than piecemeal, there is a real opportunity to invest in the necessary infrastructure to create entire community centres that have long-lasting benefits. Better transport links, new shopping areas, and properly equipped schools and hospitals will create family-friendly environments, increase worker capacity and productivity in commercial centres, work towards solving the housing shortage (and the percentage of UK citizens still below the poverty line), as we once again become a beacon for foreign investment as a fiscally strong, developed state.