Transport for London's decision to ban cash fares hits the vulnerable hardest

Those most likely to be affected will be the very young, the very poor and the very recently arrived – those, in other words, who are least likely to have alternative options.

I'm not altogether sure that Transport for London (TfL) has entirely thought through its plans to ban cash fares on its 7,500-odd buses. For most of us, most of the time, they’ll be marvellous. Just occasionally, though, it’s going to cause a bloody big headache. This would be bad enough, except that those most likely to be affected will be the very young, the very poor and the very recently arrived – those, in other words, who are least likely to have alternative options.

Once upon a time, pretty much all bus fares were bought on board the vehicle from a cheery sort in a hat. Today, though, except for the bored-looking cost-centres whose job it is to stop you falling out of the back of Boris buses, we don't bother with conductors any more. Most people use Oyster, TfL's automated ticketing system, either to show they've got a Travelcard or to pay as they go. There are other cards you can use to pay for your bus fares, too: bank cards fitted with the newfangled contactless payment systems. Today, TfL reckons, there are around 60,000 cash journeys made each day on its buses. That sounds like a lot, but it's only 1% of the total.

Forcing these stragglers to go cashless would have a number of advantages. It'd speed up boarding times (no more fiddling for small change). It'd cut crime (no point holding up a bus that doesn't carry money). It'd allow "operational flexibility" (no chance of working out what that even means).

It'd save TfL £24 million a year by 2019-20, it reckons, but it'd save passengers money too, because single fares are cheaper on Oyster than by cash. This is a bit of a cheat – TfL, after all, is the one that sets the bloody fares – but nonetheless, as things stand, you're better off paying for your bus through a medium that doesn’t have the Queen’s face on it.

Alongside all these advantages, though, the plan brings with it two obvious problems. One is relatively minor. The other isn’t.

One problem is that going cashless will confuse the hell out of anyone who doesn't live in London. Bus drivers will be lumbered with the unenviable task of explaining to tourists why they're not allowed on a large chunk of London's transport network without a strange lump of blue plastic. It’s a bit like hanging up a big sign reading, "London – open for business as soon as you've filled in the requisite form".

That, though, is the smaller problem. The bigger one concerns those who do use Oyster, but pay for their travel as they go. At some point, they’re going to run out of credit and need to top up, only to find they can't because it's the middle of the night and they're in Barking. TfL claims to have thought of this, and says it's considering letting you make one extra journey after you run out of credit. This is sweet of them, but ignores the fact you might have inadvertently used that journey to get you to Barking in the first place.

At that point, you’re dependent on one last safety net. TfL doesn’t tend to publicise this, but its drivers have discretionary powers to allow vulnerable people to travel for free. Exactly who this covers, though, is not entirely clear. A raucously drunk teenage girl is, by any sensible definition, vulnerable. They’re also exactly the kind of person you probably don’t want on your bus.

The upshot of all somebody, some time, is going to find themselves drunk, in the middle of nowhere, and unexpectedly unable to get home. A TfL spokesman told me this situation was “hypothetical”, which is fair comment, but given that there are 6 million bus journeys made every day in London, it’s nonetheless likely to happen quite a lot. Not all of the people thus affected will be burly men.

For most of us, none of this should be a problem. There are contactless payment cards. There's automatic top-up. Either of these will make it damned near impossible to get into this mess. But what both these solutions have in common is that they require you to have a bank account. Certain groups of people don’t generally have bank accounts. These include children, bankrupts and asylum seekers. These, of course, are exactly the people you want to leave dependent on the good will of a night bus driver.

No final decision has yet been made on this plan – TfL is consulting until 11 October – but it's hard to escape the feeling that this is one of those consultations that's softening us up for the inevitable, rather than genuinely asking what we think. The chair of TfL, after all, is one Boris Johnson, and since he became mayor single bus fares, most likely to be paid by the poor, have shot up by 50%. He’s also made it clear, through his expensive pseudo-Routemasters, that he sees buses less as a means of conveyance than as set decoration for a Richard Curtis movie. Another policy in which TfL privileges its own administrative convenience over the needs of those at the bottom of the pile would be rather in keeping.

A London bus. Image: Getty

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Two referendums have revived the Tories and undone Labour

The Scottish vote enabled the Conservatives' rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted Theresa May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

In the final week of the Scottish independence referendum campaign, as the Union appeared in peril, David Cameron pleaded with voters to punish his party rather than Scotland. “If you are fed up with the effing Tories, give them a kick,” he said. Cameron’s language reflected a settled view: the Conservatives were irredeemably loathed by Scots. For nearly two decades, the party had no more than one MP north of the border. Changing the party’s name for devolved contests was discussed.

Since becoming Conservative leader, Theresa May has pursued a hard – she prefers “clean” – Brexit strategy that Scots voted against and the Conservatives have achieved a UK-wide poll lead of 20 points.

Yet rather than regressing, the Scottish Conservatives have resurged. On 22 April, a Panelbase poll put them on 33 per cent in Scotland (a rise of 18 points since 2015). A favoured Labour barb used to be that there were more pandas (two) in Scotland than Tory MPs (one). The poll would leave the Tories with 12 seats and Corbyn’s party with none. Tory aides confess that they were surprised by the figures but declare there are “no limits to our ambitions” in Scotland.

The roots of this recovery lie in the 2014 independence referendum. The vote, and the SNP’s subsequent landslide victory in the 2015 general election, realigned Scottish politics along unionist and nationalist lines. Led by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives have ably exploited the opportunity. “We said No. We meant it,” the party’s official slogan declares of Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum. Under Ruth Davidson, the Tories have already become the official opposition at Holyrood.

Labour is torn between retaining unionists and winning back nationalists. It has been punished for its equivocation, as it is being punished over its confused response to Brexit. In April 2016, the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, said that it was “not inconceivable” that she could back independence if the UK voted to leave the EU (and earlier suggested that MPs and MSPs could be given a free vote). Jeremy Corbyn recently stated that he was “absolutely fine” with a second referendum being held.

“For us it’s a badge of honour but there are some people in Scottish Labour who are quite queasy about that word [unionist] and I think Jeremy Corbyn would be very queasy about it,” Adam Tomkins, a Conservative MSP for Glasgow and public law professor, told me. “Don’t forget the Northern Ireland dimension; we’ve all seen the photos of him rubbing shoulders with leading republicans. The Scottish Union is very different to the Irish Union but the word migrates.”

The irony is that Corbyn allies believed his anti-austerity, anti-Trident platform would allow Labour to recover in Scotland. Yet the pre-eminence of the national question has left it in a political no-man’s land.

In contrast to the rest of the UK, Scots backed Remain by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. Far from protecting EU membership, as David Cameron had promised in the referendum campaign, the preservation of the Union now threatened it. Theresa May has since yielded no ground, denying Scotland both a second independence referendum on terms dictated by the SNP and single market membership. But polls show no rise in support for independence.

Conservative aides believe that Sturgeon miscalculated by immediately raising the prospect of a second referendum following the Leave vote last June. Families and communities were riven by the 2014 contest. Most had little desire to disrupt the uneasy peace that has prevailed since.

Nor are the politics of Brexit as uncomplicated as some assume. Thirty-six per cent of SNP supporters voted Leave and more than a third of this bloc have since turned against independence. As elsewhere, some Remainers have accepted the result and fear the instability that secession would cause. Scotland’s trade with the UK is worth four times as much as that with the EU. Davidson, who was one of the most forceful advocates for Remain, says that pursuing independence to counter the effects of Brexit would be “stubbing your toe to then amputate your foot”.

Theresa May, who spoke of the “precious” Union when she became Prime Minister, has devoted great attention to Scotland. Cabinet ministers are instructed to develop a “Scottish plan” when they formulate policy; buildings funded by the UK government now bear its insignia. Davidson’s influence was crucial to May’s decision to retain the 0.7 per cent foreign aid commitment – an emblem of compassionate conservatism.

After a decade of SNP rule, Tory aides believe that their rival’s poor domestic record, most notably on education, is “catching up with them”. More than a year has elapsed since the Scottish Parliament passed new legislation. “We’ve got a government that simply isn’t very interested in governing,” Tomkins said. “I thought that Nicola [Sturgeon] would change that. I was wrong.” What preoccupies the SNP is the constitutional question.

Shortly after the remarkable Scottish polls, a new survey showed the Tories on course to win the most seats in Wales for the first time since 1859. For some former Labour supporters, voting Ukip is proving a gateway drug to voting Conservative.

Two referendums have now realigned politics in the Tories’ favour. The Scottish vote enabled their rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

Before the 2015 general election, Labour derided the Tories as a southern English force unworthy of their official name: the Conservative and Unionist Party. Partly through accident and partly through design, May and Davidson are now reclaiming it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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