Sailing the Political Wind: A look at the 2012 Mayoral Manifestos

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The day of the London Mayoral elections may seem a strange point to stop and look at the key candidate manifestos. Not only will many LR readers have likely voted already, but the elections been covered very effectively by the likes of the Guardian, Londonist and our other friends in the Capital’s active online sphere. More importantly, as Pedantic pointed out previously, “we don’t do politics.”

Our interest in the Manifestos, however, is more in where they agree than where they disagree – although we will look at some of the differences later. For as Pedantic highlighted, it is political will that often dictates which transport projects come to fruition as much as it is financial best fit or greatest communal need.

The Politics of Paying It Forward

Almost invariably, transport projects take longer than a political term to complete – one of the many reasons why being appointed Secretary of State for Transport is regarded by many within Westminster as a poisoned chalice. Anything you do well your successor will get credit for. Anything your predecessor did badly is your fault.

The same applies to the London Mayoralty. Transport dominates the role of the London Mayor more than any other area of responsibility. It is the area over which the Mayor has the greatest decision making power, and also the area on which – by both the London Assembly and the population at large – he is most judged. The old political canard about the importance of “making the trains run on time” is more appropriate for the London Mayor than it is for Mussolini.

Yet as with the Minister of Transport, the incumbent Mayor is always greatly dependent on the legacy of the previous term. To say that the current Mayor, Boris Johnson, has not benefitted hugely from the legacy left to him by his predecessor Ken Livingstone would be delusional. It’s possible to debate how much effect Johnson has had over the direction of the cycle scheme or the rollout of Oyster on National Rail, for example, but to describe his influence on the successful establishment of the London Overground network as anything other than passing would be charitable at best. If Johnson has reaped the benefits of Livingstone’s earlier work though, then he has also laid some legacies himself. The precise number and scale of many of those can be debated, but if nothing else it was on his watch that the disastrous PPP deals finally came to an end, and on his watch that Crossrail emerged from a major Government spending review relatively unscathed.

As if political “pay it forward” were not enough, the nature and importance of London’s transport infrastructure also forces another limitation on the Mayoralty – for the greater part, transport policy in London must be politically agnostic. This is not to say that it is free of political theatre – Johnson’s ruthless act of omnibucide against the Bendy-Buses and Livingstone’s fuel deals with Venezuela stand as good examples of that. Recently the Liberal Democrats have also latched onto “Oyster Overcharging” and it has formed a key part of their mayoral campaign message. The huge role that public transport, and public control of transport plays in the Capital, however, is effectively grandfathered in – meaning that sensible candidates realise (or in some cases discover upon election) that whilst ideological battles can be fought in the periphery of policy, they can rarely be fought in the core.

In London, both banker and protestor take the Tube, and whether that offends their political sensibilities or not, they’ll both be annoyed if its dirty, delayed or overcrowded.

This levelling of the political playing field and the almost communal benefit/risk aspect of London’s top job are what make looking at the similarities in the four key Manifestos important. For behind those Manifestos lies a considerable amount of the combined political force that London will carry over the next four years – regardless of who actually wins. Indeed behind those Manifestos can almost certainly be found six mayoral candidates not four. Boris Johnson, Ken Livingstone, Brian Paddick and Jenny Jones may be the candidates on the ticket this time around, but behind Livingstone and Paddick stand Val Shawcross and Caroline Pidgeon respectively, two of the London Assembly’s leading lights and both politicians who have arguably earned their own shot at the top job next time around. Indeed in any ranking of those six names for an understanding of London’s transport needs and infrastructure, it is arguably two of the candidates who would sit at the bottom of the pecking order –Paddick and Mayor Johnson himself. The fact that it is Pidgeon, not Paddick, who is pictured holding a giant Oystercard not once but three times in the Liberal Democrat Manifesto speaks volumes, and there are few who have witnessed Johnson’s performances in front of the Assembly Transport Committee (of which Jones, Shawcross and Pidgeon are vocal and key members) that would say he comes out of them with much in the way of credit.

These manifestos, therefore, give us a good insight into where transport policy in London is heading – because in their similarities they tell us where the winds of political support are most definitely blowing. So let us, without further ado, get down to the facts.

Franchise Reform

Lobby the government to devolve rail franchising powers to the Mayor so that TfL can specify the standards to be achieved by private Train Operating Companies: this will allow me to hold down fares; aim for a minimum frequency of service of four trains an hour on local services; improve the conditions of rundown suburban rail stations and improve safety, with more station staff and CCTV

– Boris Johnson’s Manifesto

If there is one transport policy that stands prominent above all else, it is the commitment to push for London to take control of suburban rail franchising away from the DfT. That this features across the board is perhaps no surprise. As we have covered before, the somewhat unexpected (at least by the DfT) success of the London Overground has given a great deal of strength to the argument that TfL and the Mayor should have a greater say over the running of London’s suburban network. Not least because the expansion of Oyster and the general impenetrability of the franchise system have meant that many Londoners already assume suburban services fall within the remit of the Mayor anyway.

Outside of the political debate, franchise devolution has also increasingly become a goal of TfL, who see the current system as a barrier to much-needed system-wide growth and as financially inefficient when funding will soon desperately be needed elsewhere.

Given all the above, and with key franchises due shortly, this will likely prove a key issue in the early days of the next mayoral term – and one that will draw a unified voice from across the political spectrum.

Infrastructure Improvements

As soon as I am elected I will start to build the case for the essential new infrastructure of the future, including an extension of Crossrail 1 to Ebbsfleet, Crossrail 2 (previously known as the Chelsea to Hackney line), Crossrail 3 (Euston to Waterloo), the Cross River Tram, the DLR extension to Dagenham Dock, the South London Line into Victoria, and the Croydon Tramlink extension to Crystal Palace.

– Ken Livingstone’s Manifesto

Whilst Livingtone’s Manifesto may contain both the most explicit and arguably most ambitious list of infrastructure improvements, it is by no means unique. All of the candidates acknowledge that London’s needs will very soon eclipse the infrastructure changes already agreed – if they haven’t already.

Promising new infrastructure is, of course, a London political tradition that predates the existence of the Mayoralty by many years – as is failing to adequately explain how it will be paid for. The Northern Line extension to Battersea gets an explicit mention in Johnson Manifesto, a Bakerloo Line extension receives attention in Paddick’s, Jones talks of Tram and light rail improvements and Livingtone’s characteristically bold list can be seen above. Two projects do, however, emerge consistently in all four manifestos – the extension of the Croydon Tramlink to Crystal Palace and the construction of Crossrail 2.

Given the success of the Tramlink network, and the fact that plans have existed for the Crystal Palace extension before (it was planned – but importantly not funded – towards the end of Livingstone’s time in office), the expansion of Tramlink to Crystal Palace seems likely to gain some priority within the next term of office.

Crossrail 2, by contrast, is an incredibly ambitious – and expensive – scheme, and its presence in all four manifestos (it falls within the “additional Tube Lines” category within Jones’ manifesto) speaks volumes about its growing importance to London. Plans (and safeguarding) for a Chelsea – Hackney line have existed for considerable time, and we will be exploring the history and current status of the scheme in a future article. Its presence here, however, seems to suggest that for the first time we’re likely to see a concerted political effort to bring it out of the wilderness.

Beyond these two schemes, Cross River Tram, DLR extensions and light rail projects receive much of the attention – although not across all candidates. This seems to suggest that, Crossrail 2 aside, small-scale extensions and projects may form the core of new infrastructure proposals in the coming terms, in the same way that Overground and Oyster expansions have dominated the recent ones.

Fare and Ticketing Changes

We can keep fare rises below inflation during this Mayoral term, paid for by raising the congestion charge, introducing a higher “gas guzzler” charge for the most polluting vehicles, and introducing a new congestion charge for Heathrow airport. We will deliver further fare cuts by introducing a pay-as-you-drive charge to unblock London’s congested and polluted streets.

– Jenny Jones’ Manifesto

Jones’ suggestion that car charges be used to subsidise fares may represent the most interesting proposal aimed at keeping fares low, but with the notable exception of Johnson, all the candidates commit to keeping fare rises at inflation-level or below. Indeed perhaps taking a lesson from Johnson’s campaign last election and the need for a big issue on which voters can fixate, Livingstone has made an explicit fare reduction a core of his strategy, to be followed in subsequent years by increases pegged directly to inflation.

Regardless of whether Johnson or Livingstone occupies the Mayor’s office after the coming election, it seems likely that there will be enormous pressure on TfL to reduce – or at least restrict – fare increases in the coming years. Future increases are likely to be far more politically damaging than they have been in the past. The intention to restore Zone 2-6 Travel Cards also explicitly features in Paddick’s Manifesto, and both Paddick and Livingstone have canvassed on the issue of the one-hour bus fare. It’ll thus be interesting to see whether the fare and ticket rationalisation strategy which TfL have pursued in recent years survives into the next term – it may make things administratively simpler (and slightly more profitable) for TfL, but as with fare rises it seems that public (and political) acceptance of this is wearing thin.

It’s Not Easy Being Green

London’s buses, taxis and vans still mostly run on diesel. This should no longer be the case. Air pollution from traffic causes huge health problems and this must change. Under our Big Switch plan, all of London’s buses and taxis, and most commercial vans, will run on electricity by 2020. This is financed primarily through fuel cost savings, so taxi drivers will make big savings too.

– Brian Paddick’s Manifesto

Whilst all of the manifestos point to the importance being green (and increasing foot and cycle traffic) will play in the next four years, the fact that they contain a wide variety of suggestions as to how this might be achieved speaks volumes.

Whilst increasing the number of electric vehicles in use within the capital features within all four manifestos, for example, the proposals for achieving this vary from a concentration on converting TfL’s own vehicular fleet to subsidising Taxi designs and restricting street access to non-electric delivery vehicles.

It thus seems likely that whilst the issue of emissions, pollution reduction and general green improvements are likely to once again form a vocal part of the political debate in London as we move into the next Mayoral term, the lack of a clear and accepted process to achieve this will likely remain. Finding such a solution will be increasingly important, however, as London’s decreasing air quality (and the financial and health implications of that) are likely to begin to occupy the mainstream news cycle more in the coming term.

Overall Impressions and Conclusions

The above points give a good idea of the key overall themes that emerge from this round of manifestos, and thus some good pointers as to where the transport debate within the capital is likely to turn in the coming years.

They do not represent the full likely spectrum of discourse, of course. The upgrade of the Piccadilly, Bakerloo and Central Lines (“Deep Tube/EVO”) and the corresponding rolling stock update gain little by way of mention across the board (although we will look at them in a future article), yet few of the candidates would deny that this will be a major challenge over the coming term.

There are hints that should Johnson emerge victorious, the fundamentally misleading issue of “driverless trains” will also once again occupy a significant part of the discourse. Johnson’s pledge that he will “never ensure that TfL never orders a new train for London Underground with an old fashioned driver cab” should likely be taken with an exceeding large hint of salt. In police terms Johnson has considerable “form” for flexibly interpreting his manifesto promises post election, and this one seems pre-destined for an interesting interpretation. It’s entirely possible that there will be no rolling stock order (outside of Crossrail) within the upcoming Mayoral term, but even if there was, the current design expectation for the EVO/Deep Tube rolling stock within TfL appears to be that it will feature a cab, as the chances of the Piccadilly, Bakerloo and Central being switched to a form of remote or fully-automated operation immediately post-upgrade are incredibly small. Current expectation thus appears to be that the new rolling stock will, by necessity, feature a cab – just one that can potentially be modified out at a later date. It thus seems likely that should Johnson win a second term, this promise will receive a more liberal retcon.

The issue of river crossings is also one which is likely to receive far more attention as the next Mayoral term progresses. With the ferry fleet aging and river crossing points already suffering overcrowding, the debate over new options for crossing the Thames, particularly to the east, is likely to grow – and whilst several of the Manifestos (notably Livingstone’s and Paddick’s) touch on the need to expand the options for moving people across the Thames, both fail to acknowledge that one of the major issues is likely to be freight.

Finally, it is worth highlighting that whilst there is a considerable amount of debate, and a refreshingly realistic amount of thought, on ways to improve and augment London transport to be found within the manifestos, a considerable amount of that is to be found in those of the challengers – notably Paddick and Livingstone’s – rather than the incumbent. Johnson’s transport manifesto reads much like a document that aims at highlighting work already underway, rather than one which explores how this might be built on for the future. Whilst this is arguably a welcome dose of realism in a race that has proven itself prone to hyperbole in the past, as we indicated at the head of this article, being Mayor is as much about “paying forward” as it is reaping the rewards of the past, and Johnson may need to make sure he plays his fair part in that process.

Those interested in reading the key elements of the candidates manifestos can find them here, here, here and here.

Written by John Bull