Boris's tube and bus fares "freeze" isn't a freeze

All prices will still rise by at least 3.1% at a time when wages are rising by just 0.8%. But this remains a significant concession to Labour.

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. 

Boris Johnson addresses delegates at the annual CBI conference in London on 4 November 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a united force.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will continue.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.