The most disheartening thing about politics today is the lack of ideas about how to make people’s lives better. That’s the job of government, surely, in the short, medium and long term. The crises we face, from low wages to climate change, matter because they make our lives worse. So why are politicians unable to come up with a single idea that would help? Schemes, announcements, promises—they’ve got them by the barrowload, but they’re all hollow, or incomprehensible, or both. They are so full of hot air they’d float away if they weren’t weighed down by the leaden egos of those who claim to follow ‘the people’s priorities’.
This is not a particularly British problem. You can see variations this frenetic immobility in most of the (increasingly illiberal) democracies. But it is acute in Britain, partly because it has been undergoing the deep political crisis provoked by the collapse of neoliberal thought in 2008 without the guard-rails of an effective constitution. The conservative leadership election, which will see an unknown number of members elect the next Prime Minister without external supervision, is the latest spasm of this continuing crisis. Candidates who would have been lucky to be junior ministers in any government led by Margaret Thatcher pose in her clothes like children while their parents are away. In endless TV debates and party meetings, they erect golden cities with less substance than stage sets. Promising change and continuity at the same time, they fight for the crown of country whose people depend on food banks and charity. Their answer? Tax cuts for the better off.
What could they do? Well, here’s a suggestion.
Let’s make bus travel free. At a stroke, we would help the people hardest hit by the rising cost of living—the person who pays £4 or £6 a day to get to and from the offices they clean at night, and who has to find their children’s bus fares too. We would put money back in their pockets (which is what the promised tax cuts are supposed to do) and they would spend it, because they need to, on food, rent, clothes and energy bills. The money would circulate in the economy, instead of sitting in someone’s bank account for a rainy day. Making bus travel free would not require means tests or benefit changes. It would be a universal good: wealthy people could travel by bus too (unless they thought it made them a failure). It would be a real step in reducing carbon emissions and dependency on foreign oil—the more people getting about on buses powered by renewal electricity, the better for everyone. I can see no down-side.
There is a cost, certainly. We would pay for bus transport through general taxation. But there’s no reason why it’s good to pay for roads, schools and tanks in that way but bad to do it for public transport. If there’s money for tax cuts, there’s money for buses.
And here’s another reason why it’s a good idea. Everyone can understand it. They can see how it would make their life better. However desirable nationalising rail services might be, it will be a long time before it makes anyone’s life better. It says a lot about a philosophy of government, but it doesn’t help a cleaner who needs to get to work today. We could make trains free, too, but I know that’s a bigger step. And it’s not one that will help the poorest. Let’s make bus travel free, now, and see how bus services improve when more people use them and they’re no longer dictated by profitability.
Could this happen? Yes, quite easily.
Will it happen? Not until we have politicians who understand how to make people’s lives better, and who believe that is the purpose of government.
(Apologies to anyone who comes here expecting to read about community art and cultural policy; normal service will be resumed tomorrow.)