A 24-hour Tube service is a great idea - but more can be done to improve London's infrastructure

Improvements to Tube are badly needed. Official projections show London’s population is growing by 2,000 every eight days. Getting more out of our existing infrastructure is essential to keeping London competitive and keeping its economy thriving.

In an open letter to passengers, the mayor and Transport for London have committed themselves to a 24-hour Tube service. It’s an exciting announcement, and will undoubtedly deliver a boost to London’s £8bn a year dining and entertainment industry. But there are wider implications for the capital.

For decades, the Underground has run New Year’s Eve “all-nighters”, but the plan almost certainly means that regular all-night running will happen for the first time ever. Initially limited to five lines, and beginning in 2015, Friday and Saturday operations could grow to cover more of the network and eventually Thursday nights.

The changes would do more than make life easier for revellers, however. They would mark a dramatic achievement for City Hall and Tube bosses. For decades, central government and then the first mayor wrestled with unions, engineers and complex public-private partnership contracts to get all-night running on the network. A host of reasons were lined up to say why this was not possible or unaffordable. Then came the Olympics.

London’s transport system worked efficiently to deliver record volumes of passengers, and the Tube ran longer and started earlier. Londoners seized on these achievements. What if the energy of the Olympics could be harnessed for delivering public services for London on a regular basis?

Improvements to Tube service are certainly pressing. Official projections show London’s population is growing by 2,000 every eight days. Over the next ten years or so, the city’s headcount will grow by a number equivalent to the population of Birmingham. Getting more out of our existing infrastructure is essential to keeping London competitive and keeping its economy thriving. It will help us compete in a global race with cities like Berlin, Paris and New York.

But to keep up with demand, city leaders should go further. Mayoral control over suburban rail, quiet out-of-hours deliveries, improved shopping streets, diesel-free taxis and further improvements for cyclists are a few ideas that come to mind. Running bus and Tube services on Christmas Day is another. No other multicultural world city shuts its transport system down the way London does.

Delivering these initiatives will require investment and control by local politicians. Permitting the mayor and London’s councils to keep a greater proportion of the capital’s taxes would allow more projects to be funded and services to be improved. Londoners would be able to enjoy the benefits that growth brings, and authorities would have the resources to deal with more of the pressures.

Alongside congestion charges, the cycle hire scheme and delivering the Olympics, a 24-hour Tube is a testament to London devolution. Ministers should now go further and be bold with city finance reform. As the London Finance Commission recommended, Whitehall should let Londoners and their leaders have more financial freedom to improve the capital's fabric. We may then see more of the improvements vital for a thriving city, that increasingly doesn’t want to sleep.

London's population is growing by 2,000 people every 8 days. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alexander Jan is a consultant at Arup.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser