London Special - Congestion

The capital has led the way on road pricing with the congestion charge and, despite the doomsayers,

The 1.8 million signatures on the recent road pricing petition is the least of the problems facing supporters of the concept. The plan to introduce a workable pay-as-you-drive scheme is pitted with so many potholes that it is difficult to see how politicians will ever manage to drive it through and implement anything like a comprehensive national system.

And I say "a" rather than "the" system, because there is no model, let alone a detailed scheme for it. That besides, the petition was a thoroughly dishonest exercise and was based on an email campaign which suggested that a very precise plan set a tariff of £1.30 per mile, with the additional cost of the "tag" - the GPS equipment on board that calculates the distance travelled - to be £200.

The ideas for road pricing that have been floated are various, but we are years away from any decision on charging rates or how the tags would be paid for. Given that no scheme exists, the petition was really an exercise in enlisting people who are against paying a supposedly new tax - and a man with more courage than Tony Blair would have said so.

There is no worked-out model because a national system would look very different from the only large-scale scheme currently in operation: London's congestion charge. London is exceptional for many reasons, not least the excellence of its public transport, with 12 Tube lines and 700 bus routes and a low rate of car usage. Since it came into operation in 2003 the initial congestion charge has, indeed, been a success in reducing traffic by 20 per cent, even though, at a cost of £161.7m, it has been expensive to introduce.

The western extension, controversially introduced last month to double the congestion charge's catchment area, has shakier foundations and may prove damaging to perceptions of the scheme's success.

It takes in an area that is largely residential - few people travel to work there - and the decision to allow residents a 90 per cent discount to drive in the whole area gave the affluent residents of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea leave to enter the original charging area for less than they were paying before. That the good burghers of Kensington held protests at their town hall suggests the relationship between brains and wealth is as tenuous as ever, even in these meritocratic times - a case of turkeys failing to support the abolition of Christmas.

The most telling phrase in Tony Blair's answer to the online petitioners was that "it would be ten years or more before any national scheme was technologically, never mind politically, feasible". 'Twas ever thus. Road pricing has always been ten years off. In 1993 the then transport secretary, John MacGregor, voiced commitment to introduce a scheme within a decade. Labour ministers have been saying the same thing for the past few years, seemingly unaware of the passage of time.

Blair is technologically illiterate and his response is dishonest. The technology to introduce a national scheme is available and already being used in Germany, where all lorries are charged to use the motorways. Nine out of ten pay through a sophisticated tagging system with an on-board unit that uses the US satellite system Toll Collect to calculate distance travelled. Operated by T-Systems, a subsidiary of T-Mobile, Toll Collect is 99 per cent accurate, and has been shown to function properly even in urban areas where there were concerns that tall buildings would cause black spots.

Lorry lobby

In Britain, a similar system was planned to assuage complaints by the road haulage industry that foreign lorries were getting a free ride on our motorways. However, in 2005, Alistair Darling, the then transport secretary, abruptly cancelled the proposed lorry road charging scheme, arguing that it would get in the way of the national scheme being proposed for all motorists - which, of course, he said would be ten years down the line.

This explanation does not hold water. The lorry scheme would have been an incredibly useful trial run for the wider implementation of the system. Instead it revealed political cowardice from a minister who had been sent to the Department for Transport to keep the ministry out of the headlines following the negative coverage that his immediate pre decessor, Stephen Byers, had managed to produce.

Despite making the scheme acceptable to hauliers by promising it would replace existing forms of taxation, and therefore be revenue-neutral, Darling was simply too scared of potential resistance from hauliers, a group that has terrified government ministers since the fuel protests of 2000, which almost brought the country to a standstill. This was a lost opportunity to soften up public opinion and sort out the technology.

This episode demonstrates that the biggest obstacle in implementing a national road pri-cing scheme is political, not technical. And it leads to the crucial question: What would be the purpose of a national road charging scheme? For a while ministers, ever fearful of the Jeremy Clarkson brigade, seemed to imply that it would be revenue-neutral, simply replacing fuel tax and vehicle excise duty.

That did not make sense at the time and makes even less now. The enormous costs and the political capital needed to introduce a national road pricing scheme would be disproportionate if its aim were simply to reduce congestion a tad on a few overcrowded roads. The sole rationale for imposing such an expensive and far-reaching measure would be to reduce the environmental damage caused by cars and induce a shift to other, greener, forms of transport.

Lack of political will

Here, however, there appears to be further trouble ahead as the incoherence of wider government transport policy is horribly exposed. At present, rail fares are being allowed to rise by 1 per cent above inflation. For the buses, too, fare increases above inflation in the deregulated and privatised sector are the norm. But Britain has in the past invested far less of its GDP in transport infrastructure than other comparable European economies - with the result that people induced out of their cars by the stick of heavy taxation have few carrots of nice, shiny trains or fleets of state-of-the-art buses with which to console themselves.

Aware of this, ministers tried to offload the political risk of implementing the scheme on to local authorities, offering generous bribes in the form of a Transport Infrastructure Fund that comes in two parts: the first to fund feasibility studies and the second for the implementation of schemes. Local authorities in large conurbations such as Manchester and Birmingham came back saying: "Give us lots of money to pay for better public transport, and then we will im plement road pricing." Even those areas which have been allocated money for feasibility studies, such as Norfolk, are worried about actually spending the money because of fears of a hostile local response.

Given such a reaction on the ground, and the ease with which motorists' fear of extra taxation can be roused by public campaigns, road pricing in Britain is likely to be mired in endless discussion, documents and feasibility studies for far longer than a decade.

A national scheme would require great courage and conviction, and there are few signs of either from the Department for Transport. Without that, and, more importantly, without strong political leadership, a scheme that could reduce congestion and reduce carbon emissions will forever remain "ten years away".

Christian Wolmar's book on the history of the railways, "Fire and Steam", will be published by Atlantic Books in September (priced £19.99)

Road pricing facts and figures

1.8 million people signed e-petition against road pricing
33 million cars currently on UK roads
25% increase in congestion predicted by 2015
£22bn value of time wasted in England due to congestion by 2025
£62bn set-up cost of road pricing scheme
£8bn to administer scheme every year
£1.50 per mile toll planned for busiest roads during rush hour
21% of UK carbon emissions come from road traffic
£140bn investment on public transport by 2015
£28bn annual benefit to the UK economy
Research by Mosarrof Hussain

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The great generational robbery

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Bernie Sanders and the future of the American left

How an old, white guy is bringing class-based politics to the Democratic primary.

One thing is immediately striking: as he addresses primary rallies across America, arms flailing like a giant bird coming in to land, snow-white hair fizzing skywards like Doc Brown’s in Back to the Future, eyes startled behind the robust spectacles he has worn since childhood, Bernie Sanders looks quite unlike any other presidential candidate.

Perhaps the surprise in those eyes is sparked by the size of the crowds Sanders has been attracting. They are enormous, rivalling the numbers who turned out for Barack Obama back in 2008, and unprecedented for a candidate who is not shy of describing himself as a socialist: 28,000 in Portland and LA, 25,000 in Boston and 15,000 in Seattle. Even in Dallas, not a renowned centre of radicalism, 8,000 turned out to “feel the Bern”.

In these days when slick suits and expensive haircuts are increasingly a turn-off for a public weary of smooth politicians they see as delivering only for the wealthy, Sanders’s persona, like that of Jeremy Corbyn, his equally unkempt British counterpart, has proved popular. But it is his message – an angry chronicling of the depredations facing so many Americans and a solid social-democratic programme for putting things right – that is really pulling in the crowds. Sanders, who is 74, and the main challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, doesn’t just look different. With his confident calls for a “revolution” to break up the banks and impose higher taxes on the rich, he doesn’t sound like any other recent presidential contender, either.


I first met Bernie Sanders in 1996. I was the publisher of his book Outsider in the House, a political autobiography that appeared the following year (and which has just been reissued by Verso with a new foreword, and more than a hint of optimism, as Outsider in the White House). The occasion was a benefit concert during his successful bid to be re-elected to the House of Representatives from the small, rural state of Vermont.

Sanders’s early years are not well documented, least of all by him. He devotes less than three of the 300 pages in Outsider to the first three decades of his life. He doesn’t much care for the “humble roots” narrative beloved of so many politicians, generally millionaires whose ancestors lived in broken-down cabins. But the raw material is certainly there. The son of Polish immigrants, Sanders grew up in a working-class Jewish family in Flatbush, Brooklyn. At home, money was tight: “Every major household purchase . . . would be accompanied by a fight between my parents as to whether we could afford it,” he wrote.

It was an achievement to gain admission to the University of Chicago, and though he described himself as “not a good student”, that was a result of sacrificing coursework to the cause of social activism. He settled permanently in Vermont at the age of 27, having bought an 85-acre farm in the north of the state for $2,500. Four years later he moved to Burlington, the state capital, where he became involved in city politics, at first in the tiny Liberty Union Party and then as an independent. In 1981 he was inaugurated as mayor and commenced a series of tilts at the state’s congressional seat. He finally entered the House of Representatives in 1991 – the first independent candidate to enter Congress in 40 years.

By the time I encountered him, Sanders was seeking to defend his seat for the third time. The concert where we met was taking place in an old art-deco theatre in Brattleboro, perhaps the most hippiefied community in a state where tie-dye remains as ubiquitous as dairy herds. It was headlined by Pete Seeger, who ran through a panoply from his folk songbook to a packed crowd that knew all the words.

Ten years earlier, Mayor Sanders, a long-time admirer of Seeger, had recorded one of his songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, on a surreal folk/rap album. Now, he waited until Seeger had finished his set before taking the stage and, speaking in the only manner he seems to know – a gruff, shouted staccato – exhorted Vermonters to join him in the fight against Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole to stop the Republicans from taking over the presidency and the Senate. The response was rapturous. Sanders left the stage like a president concluding a State of the Union speech, gladhanding lines of admirers as he made his way out of the hall.

A few weeks later I met him again, this time at his congressional office in Washington, DC. On the wall of his office I spotted a plaque of Eugene Debs, who ran for Congress and the presidency on a socialist ticket, travelling to every part of the country on a train he called the Red Special and picking up 6 per cent of the popular vote in 1912, when he finished fourth, behind Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

Sanders had invited me to lunch and so we headed off through the underground passageway that leads from the office building to the congressional dining room. We were accompanied along the way by one of his assistants who, in true West Wing style, peppered him with questions and made notes on a clipboard as we walked. We had just started our food when John Kasich, then congressman for Ohio and now governor of the state and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, wandered over for a chat. Despite Kasich’s reputation as a fiscal conservative, it was evident that he and Sanders had a cordial relationship, and indeed, Sanders invited him to join us for lunch.

It was difficult to reconcile these two contrasting snapshots of Sanders: the rousing air punch in Vermont and the bridge-building handshake in DC. But the more one looks into his career, the clearer it becomes that this dual approach is integral to his remarkable political ascent. Sanders plays it quite differently inside and out, but he plays both sides very hard.

“Bernie doesn’t see a contradiction between working within the system and campaigning to change it,” the journalist Matt Taibbi told me, recalling the time when he shadowed Sanders for several weeks in 2005 while researching a piece for Rolling Stone. “I remember one Thursday afternoon I made a snarky comment about members of the House already sneaking off home for a long weekend and how it seemed to me that many of them were pretty lazy. Bernie scolded me, insisting that most of the people in Congress work very conscientiously. He doesn’t believe the system functions for ordinary people, but he’s not cynical about it either.”

This point was reiterated by Heather Gautney, an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York who previously worked as a researcher in Sanders’s Senate office. “Working with Bernie in DC, I realised what a difficult place it was for someone more interested in movement-building than passing legislation,” Gautney said. “But Bernie was known for getting substantial chunks of the Republican vote in Vermont and he used that same skill to connect with some pretty unlikely allies in Congress.”

Sanders’s legislative record is strikingly good. In the decade after the Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 1995 no other lawmaker attached more amendments to bills that were voted on. He achieved this by using his position as an independent to put together coalitions that spanned both of the main parties, and also by sheer hard work. In his Rolling Stone article, Taibbi describes Sanders waiting patiently for hours to table an amendment in the office of the House rules committee, “a tiny, airless closet deep in the labyrinth of the Capitol where some of the very meanest people on Earth spend their days cleaning democracy like a fish”.

Sanders’s method of working across party lines is not without its critics. Especially on the left, there are voices that wonder if the compromises that inevitably accompany playing the system in DC are too large. Many of Sanders’s positions on foreign policy have skewed towards the militarism and careless disregard for human rights that prevail among the Washington establishment. Although notably, and unlike Hillary Clinton, he opposed the initial vote on the Iraq War, Sanders voted for every bill that came before Congress to fund the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. He has supported basing the new F-35 fighter plane at Burlington Airport in Vermont, despite widespread concern from residents about the environmental impact. And he did not oppose the Senate resolution that supported Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014, which left as many as 2,200 Palestinians dead.

Sanders is clearly happier talking about problems inside the US than foreign policy. In his opening statement to last Saturday’s televised debate between the Democratic candidates, he segued awkwardly from condemning the attacks in Paris to excoriating America’s “rigged economy”. Yet on domestic issues, too, some of his stands have given progressives pause for thought: his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade agreement championed by Barack Obama, has always been grounded in an argument in favour of saving jobs for American workers, rather than any notion of international solidarity. His slowness in expressing support for the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, something which his campaign has latterly striven hard to correct, was less of a surprise to those aware of his consistent support for the police union while mayor of Burlington. And his position on guns (he voted against the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks on buyers of firearms) is the only area in which Clinton outflanks him to the left.

But perhaps the biggest issue for many progressives is Sanders’s decision to run for president through, rather than outside, the Democratic primary. Though he began his political career in the Liberty Union Party and has stood in every election since as an independent, he is, as Howard Dean, the progressives’ challenger in the Democratic primary of 2003/2004, put it, “basically . . . a Democrat . . . [who] votes with the Democrats 98 per cent of the time”.

As Sanders relates in Outsider in the House, faced in 1996 with the choice of backing Ralph Nader, “a personal friend and an exemplary progressive” running as an independent, or Bill Clinton, whose policies on health care, welfare reform, trade, gay marriage and military spending he sharply disagreed with, Sanders decided to “support” Clinton. “Perhaps ‘support’ is too strong a word,” he frets in the book. “I’m planning no press conferences to push his candidacy, and will do no campaigning for him. I will vote for him, and make that public.”

Sanders has called for a vote for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since Jimmy Carter left office in 1981, and early this month, on ABC’s This Week, he appeared to have completed a long transition, asserting: “I am a Democrat now.”

This failure to build an electoral force outside the Democrats always leads to a dead end, according to Anthony Arnove, a prominent member of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) who is also a publisher and literary agent representing a range of leftish writers, including Arundhati Roy. “We’ve seen it over and over,” Arnove said: “a left challenge fires up the base and is then defeated in the primaries by a centrist, or, more accurately, right-wing candidate, who goes on to betray everything those people were mobilised around.”

Sanders’s fundraising almost matched Clinton’s over the summer – in the third quarter they raised $26m and $28m, respectively – and in September he became the first candidate to attract more than a million individual donations. (The average donation to his campaign has been $30.) But his dip in the polls after Hillary’s strong performances in the first nationally televised primary debate, and then again at her House select committee hearing on the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, suggests he will struggle to win the nomination. As of early November he trailed Clinton nationally by 25 points.

In Arnove’s view, Sanders “won’t get further than Super Tuesday [at the beginning of March], when he’ll direct his base to vote for Clinton. This is exactly how the Democrats become a graveyard for progressive politics, when what we desperately need are social movements that can remain independent of both establishment parties and push for their own agenda.”


The revolution to which Sanders often refers is a long way from the sort envisaged by Arnove’s ISO. He is pursuing a fairer capitalism, not its overthrow. “He’s not Trotsky,” as Taibbi put it to me. But there are those inside his campaign who think its primary focus should be building a grass-roots organisation capable of transcending the four-yearly coming together of presidential elections, to create a more permanent basis for a broad, progressive movement.

One such advocate is Adolph Reed, a writer and academic who is campaigning for Sanders in South Carolina. Working with local unions and Labor for Bernie Sanders 2016, which has 70,000 signed-up members, Reed sees the potential in using Sanders’s programme, with its emphasis on basic economic demands such as the minimum wage, universal health care and free college tuition, as a way of drawing together various groups campaigning around single issues such as housing and police racism.

For Reed, who is black, class trumps race as the key to building a movement. “In New Orleans everyone talked about Katrina as having a devastating effect on black people in the city, which of course it did. But when you analyse it, class was a much better predictor of who suffered most there,” he told me. The centre of a class-based movement, Reed argues, will have to be provided by the trade unions. “Despite the fashionability of protests without any specific demands or elected leaderships, no movement initiative is going to have staying power without being anchored in the trade unions.”

Recruiting the unions to work alongside Sanders’s campaign in the way Reed envisages isn’t easy. The American Federation of Teachers and the machinists’ union have already thrown in their lot with Hillary Clinton. And Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO (America’s national federation of trade unions), has warned individual unions against coming out for Sanders. But Reed can point to significant declarations of support, from postal workers and the National Nurses Union. The AFL-CIO chapters in Vermont and, more surprisingly, South Carolina have also backed his run.

“It’s important to keep Bernie in the race for as long as possible, but the ultimate objective is to develop structures that can continue beyond the election,” Reed said. “It’s premature to say what this network will look like, but Bernie’s campaign provides an important boost to putting it in place.”


From Jesse Jackson to Dennis Kuci­nich to Howard Dean, an array of people’s champions has made a splash in the recent history of Democratic presidential primaries. None, however, has been as explicitly critical of capitalism (or so gruff about it) as Bernie Sanders. His no-nonsense, class-based politics are a measure of how the disenchantment with the ideology of a free market that arrived like a train in the 1980s and ran off the rails in 2008 is now finding its way into the mainstream.

Up until now, the critical moments of left advance in America – the Seattle WTO protests, the anti-war movement, Occupy Wall Street, the campaign for gay rights and, today, Black Lives Matter – have occurred outside electoral politics. There are a couple of good reasons for this. The US electoral system, like Britain’s, makes third-party challenges extraordinarily difficult. And inside the Democratic Party these movements would have been crushed by a conservative leadership around the Democratic National Committee, put in place by Bill Clinton.

One result is a paucity of new progressive voices inside the party. At a moment when, as Gramsci once put it, the old order no longer works but the new order has not yet been born, Sanders, with his New Deal politics and firebrand demeanour, seems not so much a successor to the old order as a throwback to a time that pre-dates it, when politicians spoke with conviction and the society they represented was less unfair. As such, he provides a staging post for a new progressive consciousness (according to a poll by Pew at the end of 2011, more Americans aged 18 to 29 would prefer to live under socialism than under capitalism) that is not yet sufficiently coherent to enter mainstream politics in its own right, either through a serious third-party challenge or the transformation of the Democratic Party.

As a middle-class white man, Sanders has been able to get a pass to promote bold positions that someone with a less privileged identity might have found hard to sell. And his age, paradoxically, has proved not to be a disadvantage with a youthful constituency dismayed by the surrender to expedience that disfigures so much of contemporary American politics. His record has been constant over such a long period that, again like Jeremy Corbyn, he can be relied on not to sell out. Though his politics are less radical, his venerability provides a messianic cloak from the same closet as the one worn by Noam Chomsky, another hero for many young progressives.

So it’s not just today’s professionally polished politicians to whom Sanders presents a stark contrast. Recent progressive movements have embraced an identity politics that was much less prevalent when Sanders started out back in 1970s Vermont. In order to forge the sorts of alliances that are necessary to mount a credible challenge on the national political stage, they will likely have to borrow extensively from his unifying class politics. But their leadership will be younger, blacker, less straight and less masculine than Sanders. In that sense, he represents the last hurrah for the old white guy.

Colin Robinson is co-publisher at OR Books (, based in New York

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror