In defence of the Freedom Pass

Leaving a question mark over the future of the Freedom Pass will strike a blow to Labour’s electabil

Of all the things conceived and delivered by the London Labour movement, it is the work to implement the Freedom Pass that makes me most proud.

The future of the Freedom Pass has given Labour members in London an important decision to make about the future direction of policy in the city.

An honest difference of view between myself and Oona King has opened up over this issue at members' debates in Croydon and Brent. Asked if the Freedom Pass should be means-tested, Oona has argued that "If there is a choice, then I want the money to go to the poorest, not to pay for the richest like Prince Charles to go free" and "If you are the mayor and you have got less money coming in, you need to ensure the average pensioner can have the same experience or better than those richer ones . . . you need to accept means testing."

I disagree. On such a fundamental question, it is necessary to give a clear answer: that the Freedom Pass is safe. If I am selected as Labour's candidate and then elected as mayor, I will oppose any attempt to means-test the Freedom Pass. I will defend the concessionary schemes.

I never expected to hear in a Labour mayoral selection that we should consider means-testing the Freedom Pass. It is a catastrophic mistake, a gift to our opponents, including Boris Johnson. We must have a clear bottom line -- and a universal Freedom Pass should be part of it.

This strikes at the heart of electability. A London Labour candidate going into an election with a question mark over the Freedom Pass, such as being open to the idea of means-testing it, would damage Labour. Either Boris Johnson will use it as a stick with which to beat Labour, posing to the "left" of the Labour candidate, or it will open up territory that assists those who want to erode travel concessions.

In both circumstances, it is a direct blow against Londoners and would make it harder to win.

I will oppose any attempt to means-test the Freedom Pass and defend the Freedom Pass.

The Freedom Pass unites people across London. It is particularly crucial in the outer boroughs, one of the areas where its take-up is greatest. The latest figures show 51,691 Freedom Passes issued in Barnet for older Londoners and 5,903 for disabled people, for example. Another 43,791 in total have been issued in Bexley, 63,671 in Bromley and 48,827 in Havering.

Older people make up a significantly high proportion of voters and are therefore vital to our support.

There is already concern that the national bus concessionary scheme may be under threat from government cuts.

It is not the super-rich who would be affected by means testing. You are unlikely to find billionaires or members of the royal family taking advantage of the Freedom Pass. To save any meaningful amount of money, the cut-off point for the means test would not be for multimillionaires, but for individuals on much lower levels of subsistence.

The cost of administering means testing could only be offset by placing the cut-off way below the richest. The question for anyone toying with the notion of means-testing something like the Freedom Pass is: where would you draw the line?

And why stop at the Freedom Pass? There are many universal services and benefits that could also be threatened, such as free bus and tram travel for under-18s -- which the Tories have already previously tried to remove.

It is a more profound issue even than that. Some services are best delivered universally or with universal concessions for key groups. That ensures broad support for services -- such as public transport -- that would otherwise be much easier to cut by right-wing governments.

The more widely people use public transport and see the benefits, the more the city moves freely and the biggest number of people possible will have a stake in maintaining those services.

The Freedom Pass is so popular with older and disabled Londoners and their families that Boris Johnson was forced to adopt our plan to extend the Freedom Pass to 24-hour operation (though he has failed to secure its 24-hour operation on many rail services).

For Labour to succeed in 2012, it must have a strategy for winning based on protecting Londoners from the combined assault of the economic situation and a government whose policies will worsen its impact.

That is why I will not toy with ideas like means-testing the Freedom Pass, and why I will support other universal services and benefits that make our society fairer and stronger.

Ken Livingstone was mayor of London between 2000 and 2008, and is currently campaigning to be Labour's candidate in the 2012 London mayoral election.

Ken Livingstone is the former Mayor of London.
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How English identity politics will shape the 2017 general election

"English" voters are more likely to vote Conservative and Ukip. But the Tories are playing identity politics in Scotland and Wales too. 

Recent polls have challenged some widely shared assumptions about the direction of UK elections. For some time each part of the UK has seemed to be evolving quite distinctly. Different political cultures in each nation were contested by different political parties and with different parties emerging victorious in each.

This view is now being challenged. Early general election surveys that show the Tories leading in Wales and taking up to a third of the vote in Scotland. At first sight, this looks a lot more like 1997 (though less enjoyable for Labour): an increasingly hegemonic mainland party only challenged sporadically and in certain places.

Is this, then, a return to "politics as normal"? Perhaps the Tories are becoming, once again, the Conservative and Unionist Party. Maybe identity politics is getting back into its box post Brexit, the decline of Ukip, and weak support for a second independence referendum. We won’t really know until the election is over. However, I doubt that we’ve seen the back of identity politics. It may actually bite more sharply than ever before.

Although there’s talk about "identity politics" as a new phenomenon, most votes have always been cast on a sense of "who do I identify with?" or "who will stand up for someone like us?" Many voters take little notice of the ideology and policy beloved of activists, often voting against their "objective interests" to support a party they trust. The new "identity politics" simply reflects the breakdown of long-established political identities, which were in turn based on social class and collective experiences. In their place, come new identities based around people, nations and place. Brexit was never really about the technocratic calculation of profit and loss, but about what sort of country we are becoming, and what we want to be. 

Most social democratic parties in Europe are struggling with this change. Labour is no different. At the start of the general election, it faces a perfect storm of changing identities. Its relationship with working-class voters continues to decline. This is not because the working class has disappeared, but because old industries, with their large workplaces, shared communities and strong unions are no longer there to generate a labour identity. 

Labour is badly adrift in England. The English electorate has become increasingly assertive (and increasingly English). The Brexit vote was most strongly endorsed by the voters who felt most intensely English. In the previous year’s general election, it was fear of Scottish National Party influence on a Labour minority government that almost certainly gave the Tories the English seats needed for an overall majority. In that same election, Labour’s support amongst "English only" voters was half its support amongst "British only" voters. The more "English" the voters, the more likely they were to vote Ukip or Conservative. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Ukip voters now go Tory. Those who think that Ukip somehow groomed Labour voters to become Tories are missing the crucial role that identity may be playing.

So strong are these issues that, until recently, it looked as though the next election - whenever it was called - would be an English election - fought almost entirely in English battlegrounds, on English issues, and by a Tory party that was, increasingly, an English National Conservative Party in all but name. Two powerful identity issues are confounding that assumption.

Brexit has brought a distinctly British issue into play. It is enabling the Tories to consolidate support as the Brexit party in England, and at the same time reach many Leave voters in Wales, and maybe Scotland too. This serendipitous consequence of David Cameron’s referendum doesn’t mean the Tories are yet fully transformed. The Conservative Party in England is indeed increasingly focused on England. Its members believe devolution has harmed England and are remarkably sanguine about a break up of the union. But the new ability to appeal to Leave voters outside England is a further problem for Labour. The Brexit issue also cuts both ways. Without a clear appeal cutting through to Leave and Remain voters, Labour will be under pressure from both sides.

North of the border, the Tories seemed to have found - by accident or design - the way to articulate a familial relationship between the party in Scotland and the party in England. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson appears to combine conservatism, unionism and distance from English politics more successfully than Scottish Labour, which must ride the two horses of "near home rule" and committed unionism. Scottish Labour has a perfectly good call for a reformed union, but it is undermined by the failure of Labour in England to mobilise enough popular support to make the prospect credible.

Identity politics is not, of course, the be all and end all of politics. Plenty of voters do cast their ballots on the traditional tests of leadership, economic competence, and policy. Labour’s campaign will have to make big inroads here too. But, paradoxically, Labour’s best chance of a strong result lies in taking identity politics head on, and not trying to shift the conversation onto bread and butter policy, as the leaked "talking points" seem to suggest. Plenty of voters will worry what Theresa May would do with the untrammelled power she seeks. Challenging her right or ability to speak for the nation, as Keir Starmer has done, is Labour’s best bet.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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