Time for Labour to Climb Back on The Bike

One of areas where the Labour manifesto needs improvement is transport. It is rarely a frontline area at election time, and although the nationalisation of the railways proved a popular pledge, there was little on how Labour could make a decisive shift towards a more environmentally friendly policy that would also improve people’s journey experience.

Cycling received barely a mention, and among Labour activists it is often thought that cycling is a minority concern, and a policy encouraging its use would not attract any new voters, and, furthermore, would alienate some existing supporters. That is a mistaken view.

I have just spent three days cycling in Holland, where a quarter of journeys taken are by bike. There are cycle routes everywhere, even in places where major infrastructure, such as expensive bridges, are needed to ford rivers or separate cyclists from motor vehicles. It was really noticeable how many pension-age people were on bikes, some having purchased electric ones that require less, but still some, physical activity.

The impact of all this cycling is clear to see from the population. Obesity is a rarity, older people are thinner and fitter, and children as young as six or seven cycle unaccompanied to school. Think of the independence and sense of well-being that gives them.

Ah, people say, it is the culture and the geography. Not so. The Netherlands was heading the same way as the UK in the 1960s, squeezing out cyclists as roads filled up with cars. The death toll of young people was rising and a grassroots movement of parents, mostly mothers who had lost children in accidents, sprang up in protest. Gradually, but inexorably, the climate changed. Cycling was first accommodated, then encouraged, and finally became an integral part of the transport infrastructure.

It can be done here.  I am sick of seeing pictures of overweight councillors, often I’m afraid Labour ones, standing by a busy road saying that making improvements for cyclists is impossible because it would disrupt traffic or cause environmental degradation.

We could do this. Labour could do it. Jeremy Corbyn himself is a shining example of how being a cyclists keeps you young. Supporting cycling is not about supporting a few Lycra louts. It is not even about transport policy or even environmental considerations. The most important impact would be on health and well-being. A recent large-scale survey showed that people who commute to work by bike suffer 50 per cent fewer heart attacks and experience almost the same reduction in cancer than those who travel by car. Just think of the positive impact that would have on our embattled and struggling NHS.

Cycling should therefore be at the core of transport policy, not some add-on dismissed in vague statements such as ‘cycling and walking should be encouraged’. Cycling can be positively transformational, in a way many people do not realise.

On the trip through Holland, we came across a town of some 5,000 people – with lots of holidaymakers too – called Burgh-Hamstede which was relatively spread out, and spacious. In Britain, everyone would have driven to the local shops and supermarkets but instead the vast majority cycled, leaving their bikes in the vast cycle parks at the front of the shops, while the few cars were hidden at the back. The town was noticeably quiet, and the few car drivers there were accepted that bikes had precedence with absolutely no anger or bad temper on either side. Indeed, what was most noticeable, was the complete lack of hostility between different road-users. That is clearly because almost everyone does everything; in other words, cyclists drive, drivers cycle — and everyone is a pedestrian, too.

Think of the hundreds of British towns which stretch barely a mile or two from one end to the other where most journeys, like those in Burgh-Hamstede, could easily be undertaken by bike. It needs political will, courage and a cycling champion, but it could be done and the savings would materialise very quickly through the reduction of use of the health service.

In London, thanks to – and it chokes me to say it – Boris Johnson and Andrew Gilligan, who created the beginnings of a network of dedicated bike routes, cycling has become well-established. There are concerns that Sadiq Khan has not built on this quickly enough, out of fear of alienating drivers and pedestrians. Slowing down London’s programme to boost cycling would be a real mistake. Yet, there are signs, with the publication of plans for some junction remodelling, that momentum is being lost.

London can become a beacon not just nationally but internationally. Then its success should be picked up by Labour as a key part of its next manifesto.

Just to repeat – it is not geography, tradition or cost that prevents cycling becoming a key transport mode. It is politics.

Christian Wolmar

August 2017

None of the other leadership contenders could have delivered this result – and now we must come together behind Corbyn

Like many people, I was wrong about Jeremy Corbyn. I voted for him in the first leadership ballot, supported him for the first few months but then felt he didn’t come up with the goods or show the right leadership qualities. I then voted for Owen Smith because I had become completely disillusioned with the Labour leadership owing to its chaotic office, the failure to set out any domestic policies and Jeremy’s poor media performances.

Once he had won that second ballot, however, there was no turning back and, as the parliamentary candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December last year, I was unfailingly loyal because – put simply – unity is crucial to electoral success. I have remained loyal since, campaigning in several London seats (the wrong ones as it turned out, because they all ended up with 10,000-plus majorities!) to help Labour win.

Jeremy’s victory in the second leadership election meant it was incumbent on everyone in the party to give him the opportunity to show what he could do. Not being one of his inner circle, I don’t know how he did it but he ran a stunning election campaign, as we all now have to recognise. His team sorted itself out, played on his strengths and inspired the electorate. It belied the convention that nothing much changes during the hustings period.

The key point is that none of the other leadership contenders in either leadership ballot would have succeeded in getting 40 per cent of the vote. Labour was on a downward slide, having lost seats in all four elections since 1997. That trend has been reversed and we are now just 2.5 per cent behind (which is made to look far larger by the 56-seat difference).

Corbyn said right from the beginning that he would inspire non-voters and that is precisely what he did. This is what happened in both the US election – where Donald Trump inspired the previous non-voting white working classes to come out for him – and in the Brexit referendum, where turnout was high thanks to normally apathetic voters coming out. Barack Obama, too, inspired new voters, blacks and Latinos who had previously not registered to vote, feeling that politics was somehow nothing to do with them.

This is why the – thankfully few – people now saying that we just missed out on winning the election, and that with another leader we would have done better, are misrepresenting what has happened. Remember that for the past few years, the “death of the Labour Party” has been taken as a given. The prognosis was that we would wither and die from natural causes, losing seats because our working-class base was being eroded. The Corbyn revolution has changed all that and we must acknowledge this. It is, in fact, the Conservative Party, which, remember, has not won a majority of more than 21 seats since the days of Thatcher, which faces an existential crisis. Their core support is slowly dying off while every day new potential Labour voters are coming of age. You only have to look at the break-down of voters by age to see this.

This, therefore, is a call to all sides in the Labour party to come together. We must not let this opportunity to capitalise on the election result slip through our hands by reverting to party division and dissent. The Corbynistas must not be too triumphalist in victory while the right must be gracious in defeat and, like me and so many others are already doing, admit they got it wrong. Jeremy must reach out to all wings of the party to ensure there is a shadow cabinet of all the talents, but, just as important, his former opponents in the party must respond positively. This is not a time for showboating or concerns about policy differences. Politics is the art of compromise and all politicians know that.

We need the best people to respond to the government on the Today programme and elsewhere in the media. Of course, differences remain but the manifesto, with, for example, its commitment to Trident, was a unifying document. One of the reasons we did so well at the election was the discipline shown by MPs – we did not start arguing in public and we must not start doing so now.

Christian Wolmar is a former Labour parliamentary candidate as well as a transport expert and writer.

This article first appeared on Labour List.

Corbyn of all people must realise this – Labour MPs must forget the whip and vote against article 50

Jeremy Corbyn has confirmed he will impose a three-line whip on Labour MPs to vote for the enactment of article 50. That would be disastrous both in the short term, as it will lead to resignations from the frontbench and, more important for the future credibility of the party. It will align Labour with a dangerous, Tory-driven hard Brexit which threatens to wreck the economy.

The court case decision to give parliament a say over the enactment of article 50 should be an opportunity for Labour to demonstrate a clear way forward. We should be saying that because Brexit is bad for Britain we will put whatever obstacles we can in its way. We may lose out in the short term, but we will win in the longer term.

Corbyn said that the will of the British people must be respected. However, this “will” was expressed by 52 per cent of the 72 per cent who voted seven months ago. Apart from the nonsense about £350m per week for the NHS, which probably most people were too sensible to believe, voters were told by many Brexit supporters that a vote for Out did not mean that Britain would leave the single market. Now it appears that it does.

This raises fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the referendum. In any case, as many constitutional experts have pointed out, the referendum was advisory, not mandatory. The idea that MPs have to slavishly follow the result of the referendum, whatever it entails, is a nonsense. Theresa May has virtually admitted that. Given a choice between controlling immigration or boosting the economy, she has plumped for the former. If that had been explained to people before the referendum, the result may well have been different. People do not generally vote to make themselves poorer.

Yet, Corbyn is now asking MPs to do precisely that, contradicting the manifesto on which they stood in 2015. It said: “The economic case for membership of the EU is overwhelming. Over three million of our jobs are linked to trade with the economic union, and almost half our trade and foreign investment comes from the EU”. So what are our MPs supposed to tell those people when they lose their jobs and come to their surgeries?

That is the key point. Corbyn’s policy is short-term pragmatism when what we need is long-term vision.

Brexit will go wrong and we need to show that we were on the side of the people who will suffer the economic consequences of that debacle. Remember, too, that we will not, of course, get any credit in the unlikely – I would say impossible – event that things go right with Brexit. We are the Opposition; we should oppose.

As Phil Kelly, a fellow Islington North Labour party member wrote in an open letter to Corbyn on Facebook today, “we don’t say ‘we accept the result’ of elections when we lose. We fight against harmful government policies even when these have been in other parties’ manifestos”.

Keir Starmer indicated at my Islington North general committee meeting last week that Labour’s support for the unachievable policy of “full access to the market, except for immigration” is because we need to listen to our supporters who voted Leave. There is a risk this is seen as cynical stance towards the electorate.

Corbyn cannot legitimately ask his MPs to support a motion that goes against their conscience given that 80 per cent supported Remain. After all, was it not his conscience that made Corbyn vote against the Labour whip 428 times before he became leader?

This article first appeared on the Labour List Website.

Christian Wolmar was the Labour candidate in last year’s Richmond Park by-election and is a member of Islington North CLP.