"There is nothing new in this. Progressive government requires strong leadership because quite often it involves taking measures that are unpopular in the short term. The upside is that genuinely progressive policies acquire popularity once they are in place. The congestion charge in London is an obvious example. Ken Livingstone took the risk against the weak populist opposition of the Tories and the silent caution of the Government. He has been vindicated subsequently, including being re-elected against a Conservative candidate who pledged to abolish the charge. Sometimes boldness is necessary even if the voters are grateful only retrospectively."This is of course absolute and total nonsense. Londoners did not vote for Ken over Norris on the basis that one wanted to scrap the Congestion Charge and the other one didn't. It is quaintly amusing though that Richards would accuse the petitioners of being "short-sighted" and holding "lazy views" and then put forward such a reductionist argument about the outcome of an election. What actually happened is that Londoners were fooled into voting for Livingstone's manifesto on the belief that he was telling the truth when he said bus fares wouldn't go up, and that the congestion charge would remain the same. In the words of The Who, they won't get fooled again. Richards goes on,
"When the Government has dared to take risks it has also been vindicated. Indeed the level of vindication can be measured by the Conservatives' U-turns. The Tories now support policies such as the minimum wage, a London-wide elected body and the higher investment in schools and hospitals, all of which they meekly opposed. Where the Government was weak and cowardly, such as adopting a conservative foreign policy position over supporting the US in the war against Iraq, it is condemned subsequently. It is much better, surely, to be praised retrospectively for courage."He seems to be a little confused about the nature of conservatism I think. After all, conservatism is about gradualism from the status quo based upon an instinctively averse attitude to making changes without quantifable known outcomes. Thus Conservative "U-turns" on those policies doesn't actually vindicate them at all. It simply states that they are now embedded and therefore part of the status quo, thus should be approached with a traditionally conservative attitude to change. It's a bit like all that privatisation and trade union legislation that Labour didn't reverse. They're not vindicating Tory policies by failing to roll it back, they're just acknowledging it would produce unquantifiable results to do so. Amusingly he then says,
"Transport is a crisis issue. To their credit ministers have done more than the previous Conservative administration, increasing budgets and halting the decline of the railways into what had become a decrepit Third World service. But that has been nowhere near enough. Roads are congested. Trains are over-priced and unreliable. Parts of the London Underground are a disaster area and at weekends do not appear to function at all. In some areas of the country the privatised buses are nowhere to be seen."So lets get this straight. The transport system was crap. After ten years of Labour the transport system is still crap. The only difference is that Labour have just done more less crap less. Sorry Steve, I think that argument is crap. The fallacies really start coming out now though,
"[Road pricing] recognises that road space must be rationed. Some on the left argue that road pricing would penalise the poorest, but then offer no alternative solution. There are too many cars on a small and congested island. Road pricing would free up some space."Just because they offer you no alternative it does not make them wrong. Let's see, couple road pricing with the inherent dependency culture fostered by tax credits amongst the poor and you instantly remove another means for social mobility. It is not for critics to offer an alternative, it for policy wonks to solve the much greater issue of restricting the free movement of the already Government-nurtured underclass. There was me naively thinking that the Left cared about the many, not just the few at the top. Richards has kindly helped me out with that perception though,
"The policy should not be seen as a sacrifice, a mistake made too often when new charges are introduced. On the contrary, for selfish reasons I want fewer cars on the roads so I can get to places more quickly."To quote the ever wise Edmund Blackadder, "Toffs at the top, plebs at the bottom, and me in the middle making a fat pile of cash out of both of them." OK, maybe he won't be making cash, but the inherent point remains, don't bother with aspiration if you're poor, just accept your tax credits, stay in your sink estate, and let us more important elite snobs have our roads back because we can afford them. Pull the ladder up Jack! Richards then starts using London as an example again (I wonder if he actually lives there?),
"Secondly, the revenues from road pricing should be earmarked exclusively for improvements to public transport and cycle lanes. The cash should not disappear in a vacuum. Again, Livingstone points the way by spending cash from the congestion charge on buses in London. The capital is the only part of the country where bus usage is up."Why do you think buses are so popular in London right now though? Is it because of all the lovely "investment"? No, it's up because all the cars have moved to the outskirts of the congestion zone blocking them up. We don't take the bus out of choice. We do it because we have no choice at all. This said, Richards then proceeds on to his "critque" (and I use the term loosely) of the philosophical argument against road pricing, he states that,
"The civil liberty arguments are a red herring. Some worry that the Government will know where everyone is driving. So what? Unless we are driving to rob a bank I doubt if some imaginary secret police force will be very interested. The Government is having problems sorting out tax credits and tracing foreign prisoners. Everyone is far too busy to make use of film footage of motorists heading for Waitrose or a dodgy motel to conduct some sordid affair. Presumably, there will be no road pricing cameras in the motel to check up on any further mileage."Oh dear oh dear.... firstly, just because the current administration is utterly incompetent it does not mean that we should build the technological infrastructure to allow a future non-incompetent Government to control and monitor our every move. It would be false to assume that incompetence today will exist in perpetuity. Ask yourself this, would someone like Stalin have found a system that could monitor everyone in their cars useful?
Now, as for this supposed "red herring", using humour to essentially put forward the age old "if you've got nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear" argument, he's actually completely missing the point. Information about ourselves, where we are, and what we are doing is ours, it is not the states'.
We have autonomy over that information and we make the choice when we disclose it. For example, we choose to let supermarket marketing people know what we buy by accepting the loyalty card. We will have no choice over any tracking ability. It matters not whether someone is looking at it or not. It is about the relationship between the state and the individual.
We, as individuals, are the ultimate creators of the state; and we, as individuals are the ultimate arbiters of our information, not the state. It is not about how the information may or may not be used, it is about the assumption of who owns that information in the first place. Richards finally closes his article at this point by saying,
"The petition against road pricing will be scaring everyone from Blair downwards. Yet this Government prevails when it is genuinely bold and stumbles when it pretends to be courageous. It deserves credit for contemplating radical measures. Now it must implement them."Well excuse me, but I fail to see what is radical about a Labour government introducing another tax for the purposes of spending. Surely that is simply acting to type?
This post also appears on The Fisk