After his defence of untrammelled capitalism last week, is Boris Johnson now taking inspiration from Ed Miliband? At first sight, this morning's Evening Standard headline, "Boris Johnson announces London Underground and bus fares freeze", suggests so. But read on and it transpires that this "freeze" is actually an inflation-linked rise. Most fares will now merely rise by 3.1%, rather than the expected 4.1% (although travelcards will still rise by the larger figure). For passengers, whose pay rose by an average of just 0.8% in the most recent quarter and who are already paying the highest fares in the world (up by 60% since Boris became mayor), that remains a steep increase.
But given his initial reluctance to act, this is still a significant concession by the mayor to his political opponents. In September, 24 Labour MPs signed a Commons motion demanding that fares rise by no more than inflation. It stated: "Transport for London has reported unbudgeted operational surpluses for the previous three years and is showing evidence of regularly under-anticipating fares income and overestimating other expenditures (We) call on the mayor of London to use his discretion to freeze fares at RPI (retail price index) for 2014, easing the pressure on ordinary Londoners during the current cost of living crisis."
In his recent speech on "the great Tory train robbery", Sadiq Khan, the shadow London minister and a potential mayoral candidate, said: "Boris Johnson has an abysmal record of hiking fares year on year that has contributed massively to the cost-of-living crisis in London. Since he became Mayor the cost of a single bus journey has increased by 56 percent. In 2008 a single pay-as-you-go journey on a bus or tram cost just 90 pence. The same journey today will cost you £1.40. The price of a travel card from zones 1-6 has increased by £440 a year. That’s a bigger hike than even gas and electricity bills.
"In a few weeks’ time, the Mayor will be announcing the rate of fares for next year. Londoners simply cannot afford another inflation busting increase to the cost of travel. The Mayor must recognise that Londoners are struggling more than ever before and that their budgets can’t keep stretching forever. He must take action to ease the pressure for ordinary Londoners by freezing fares at least at the rate of inflation for 2014."
Boris has now done just that. But after having their expectations raised by Labour's promised freeze in energy prices, voters are unlikely to thank him for it.