My love-hate relationship with National Express

Nothing makes you question the nature of your inner life more than eight hours alone on a glorified bus with seatbelts, writes Holly Baxter.

When I first got told that the New Statesman was desperate to hear from an insider about the "red-headed stepchild of transport", I had to agree with their assessment of coach travel. Coach travel is unglamorous. In fact, it’s no understatement to say that coach travel has been the bane of my otherwise plain-sailing twentysomething life: hailing from Newcastle and living in London, it’s both an alluringly cheap and experientially horrific form of travelling from Hoxton hipsters to Geordies in a "mere" eight and a half hours. In fact, I’ve been drawn in so often by the National Express website’s glittering promises of £5 rides from London Pride to Newcastle Brown Ale that I even went to Belgium on one a couple of months ago. In case you’re wondering, that one had its horrific moments too – but I’d do it again in an instant.

Nothing makes you question the nature of your inner life more than eight hours alone on a glorified bus with seatbelts. The terror sets in the day before: am I interesting enough to sustain myself intellectually for almost an entire waking day, sandwiched (in all likelihood) between a screaming child and an impossibly fat man, with only my iPod to separate myself from them socially? Will they attempt to speak to me? Will I feel compelled by British politeness to reply, and so end up in a long conversation about the nuances of my upbringing somewhere along the M21? Will I cry? Even worse, am I one of those people who isn’t quite calm or stupid or drunk enough to immerse myself fully in back-to-back albums of Indie Artist A with nary a thought in my head, but also not quite profound enough to retract into my various deep and meaningful ruminations, feeding for hours off the various philosophical scenarios that they offer up? Inevitably, yes, you are one of those people. You are traversing the country at a steady and constant 50mph, stuck between "bored of Leonard Cohen after four hours" and "bored of my own theories on the use of anarchist spaces in urban environments after one". Folk rock and a hard place.

If you have a companion on these arduous journeys, the whole situation can be made even worse. My friend Sean and I, for instance, have travelled back home together a handful of times, and no longer do so for the sake of our friendship. The near-fatal argument came when Sean convinced me to branch out into the £1 Megabus, despite my previous lifetime loyalty to the lush pleather seats and the plentiful wifi of the National Express. About five minutes into stepping aboard, the coach heated up to about 40˚C (unexpectedly, since it was the middle of December) and stayed this way for the entire journey. The man across the row from us was visibly panting. Sean and I had to keep swapping seats in order to take turns pressing ourselves against the condensation on the windows to temporarily cool down. Regrettable words were passed between us – but a year on, the wounds are beginning to heal. It may have ultimately made us stronger.

The coach is an increasingly niche form of transport: the most recent reports by the ONS found that many coach passengers are – for want of a much better cliché – jumping ship. Trains are becoming the preferred method of public transport for those who previously hopped on the coach, although most of those who work choose to drive ourselves. To travel by coach nowadays, you’re most likely to be either very young or very old: 17-20, or well into your retirement. This may say something about these demographics having the least amount of money (or, indeed, sense) at their disposal; but I prefer to see it as symptomatic of the undying optimism of kindly grandmothers and The Youth. It’s cheap, it’s easy to access, it comes with the tantalising possibility of being scenic; you can kick back with a pear cider and a headphone splitter and ask your boyfriend what he thinks of your band’s latest album before you arrive at Glastonbury. The coach driver will probably be a laugh. Everyone will glance at each other knowingly when the boxy vehicle takes a turn too sharply, because being squashed into such close confines at such low prices comes with its own wartime-esque camaraderie guarantee.

For this sort of experience, the train doesn’t really cut it. For one thing, trains are and have always been segregated by class, never mind planes and types of cars: Geordie legend has it that when Queen Victoria passed by Newcastle on the rail network, she requested that all the first class blinds be closed lest she catch a glimpse of the filthy waters of the Tyne and its filthier residents dwelling above. There is no class system on a National Express coach. Everyone has to follow the same treacherous motorway choreography to the toilet. There are no delusions of joining the Mile High(way?) Club. Orgasms on the dual carriageway? Pah! Even an inadvisedly microwaved panini from the buffet car is out of reach: almost all passengers will have a cellophaned sandwich in their hand luggage, tucked away for the fourth hour, at which point everyone will simultaneously set their lunches free and the one unthinking sushi-bringer will be judged harshly but fairly.

If that’s not enough to tempt you into a slippery pleather seat, then consider that coaches are six times less polluting than an aircraft, four times cleaner than a car, and twice as environmental as a train. They are seven times safer than driving on your own, and if you get through the journey from the South to the North of England in one piece while journeying alongside a companion, the trauma (and the subsequent "funny story") will almost definitely cement your relationship for life.

And that’s without even factoring in what can happen if you carry on into Scotland.

This piece is part of A to B, the New Statesman's week of posts about travel and transport.

A woman passes a coach. Photograph: Getty Images
Holly Baxter is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for The Guardian and The New Statesman. She is also one half of The Vagenda and releases a book on the media in May 2014.
Photo: Justin Tallis/Getty Images
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If Jeremy Corbyn does win, the Greens should shut up shop

If self-described socialists continue to organise outside of the Labour party, they risk depriving the left's main outlet of both talent and voters, warns Michael Chessum.

It could all be rash complacency, but for much of left thoughts have already begun to focus on the reality of a Corbyn-led Labour Party. In the Labour left, the air is swirling with new projects – to back Corbyn up as leader, to organise the membership against parts of the PLP if necessary, to bring Labour into social movements and social movements into Labour. But outside Labour, too, the wider left is waking up to discover the entirely different reality that could be posed by a sharp left turn in leadership. In the Green Party, and especially among those on the left of the party, there is increasing pressure to find a formal working arrangement with Corbyn’s Labour, much of which is reflected in Caroline Lucas’s open letter in the Independent last week. An electoral pact is, apparently, already on the table.

Lucas’s call for an electoral pact is a pretty honest gesture, and will not be entirely uncontroversial in her own party; it is certainly worth much more than, as some more cynical onlookers in Labour have put it, “please don’t run against me in Brighton Pavillion”. It could also be significant in terms of electoral arithmetic: after boundary changes, and in any tight election, Labour will need the 3.8 per cent of the vote that the Greens got at the last election.  But while Lucas and other leftwingers in the Green Party are at least acknowledging the issue, there is a danger that they will avoid a more fundamental question: if Corbyn wins, does it really make sense for self-described socialists in the Green Party to continue a separate existence outside of Labour at all?

Corbyn represents the undeniable arrival of a wider political trend. Across Europe, democratic socialism is undergoing a split: yesterday’s “realists”, who argue for an accommodation with neo-liberal economics and the austerity politics that follows it like clockwork, are on one side; on the other is an assortment of socialists and social democrats who argue for something else. Mass anti-austerity politics has not been a one-party affair in the UK: it was built from the ground up by students, workers and community campaigns; it was road-tested in Scotland; and it has been formulated into policy from a variety of angles, as well as by the Corbyn campaign itself. But now, in the face of the realities presented by five more years in opposition, the vital political expression of the anti-austerity movement seems to have come to fruition in the Labour Party.

This fact will leave one of the largest sections of the organised left – the Green left – disorientated and unsure of what to do. Some socialists and leftwingers in the Green Party are there on the basis of a genuine conviction that the green movement, rather than the labour movement, is their political home. But for the vast bulk of those drawn to the Green left – many of them freshly recruited from recent social movements, others exiles from Labour under Blair – the purpose of the Green left is premised largely on the idea that a credible party-political alternative was needed, and that an anti-austerity surge would be impossible inside the Labour Party. This premise is now ebbing away.

The race is now on for the true believers to convince their periphery of the virtues of remaining in the Green Party after Corbyn wins. Many may yet be convinced, and the Labour left should not be complacent about recruiting a sudden tide of departing Greens.  But for those who joined because they wanted to intervene into mainstream politics from the left, there should be no doubt as to where the big fights will now happen, and where those committed to having them should go.

The incorporation of elements of the radical left’s core constituency into the Greens was always a peculiarity of recent British history. Had it become a sustainable arrangement and grown into a faint British Syriza, it would have made the Green Party of England and Wales unique in Europe, where ecologist and green parties usually sit distinctly and uneasily next to their far-left counterparts.

Much of the uneasiness that characterises the relationship between green parties and radical left groupings in other countries is about ideas, but much of it is also about tribalism – the simple fact that they have separate organisations which need to be different, and which breed differences in approach as often as they reflect them. If either the Green left or the Labour left are not careful, this tribalism will replicate itself, weakening everyone and dividing the left for no particularly coherent political reason.

That is why it is so significant that figures as senior as Caroline Lucas are already making overtures to Corbyn’s Labour. However, there is a danger that behind the positive gestures lie a serious of less friendly assumptions: that any electoral pact is temporary, is designed to build and promote the existence of the two separate parties, and would end upon the introduction of a proportional voting system – a move which, although positive in itself, would further entrench the fault lines between the Green and Labour lefts.

There are numerous ways that this could be overcome which would avoid the Greens simply dissolving themselves or quietly surrendering their politics. If it carried majority support in the party, the Green Party could reach the same arrangement with Labour that the Co-operative Party has: it would have its own structures, and would run Green-Labour candidates in places where it won the selection inside the local Labour Party. If there is no majority for such an arrangement, socialist Greens who want a higher degree of unity with Labour could form a faction, first within the Greens, and, if they continued to lose the argument, they could break away to form a platform in Labour.

As the seemingly impossible becomes a reality, there will be all kinds of realignments in the political space that the Labour left and Green left both claim to occupy – not to mention a potential split on Labour’s right wing. The best hope for a healthy realignment of the British left lies in an honest exchange of ideas; a newly democratised and pluralistic Labour Party which embraces – rather than excludes – political energy formerly to its left; and a willingness on the part of external political forces to orientate themselves towards Labour as the political expression of a mass movement. Those forces should involve the left wing of the Green Party.