Getty.
Show Hide image

Labour’s free bus travel for the under 25s is a decent policy, but a political masterstroke

“This party isn’t for you,” say Tories.

Is Labour’s plan to make bus travel free for under 25s a clever political gambit, which will lock in the youth vote by helping out a group struggling with low wages, insecure work, and soaring living costs? Or is it just the latest sign that Jeremy Corbyn is intent on buying his way to Downing Street, and possibly also a communist? The policy is all of half a day old, and both those takes can already be found roaming the internet in herds.

I’m uncertain whether free bus passes in council areas that take back control of their bus networks will make for good policy: in many ways it looks great, but there are niggling doubts about practicalities. As a piece of politics, though, it looks like a masterstroke. It’s the latest incarnation of a trap the Opposition has set for the government several times now – yet the Tories seem determined to fall for it every single time.

Policy first. Making it cheaper for young people to travel is A Good Thing, which will make it easier for them to stay in education or access jobs. What’s more, buses are by far the best way of moving large numbers of people around most British cities. (London’s comprehensive rail network is, if not quite unique, then certainly very unusual.) In terms of making efficient use of scarce space, and reducing things like traffic and pollution, anything that encourages people out of cars and onto a bus has to be good.

What about the fact the policy will only apply where councils either take over bus networks themselves – or, more likely, plan and franchise them, as Transport for London does in the capital? Well, this strikes me as a good thing too. Deregulation of bus networks has been an utter failure, resulting in high fares and confusing ticketing. Most damagingly of all, it’s undermined the whole idea of local transport in many areas, by allowing private firms to cherry pick the most profitable routes while lumbering councils with expensive but socially necessary ones. After 30 years it’s so clear the policy has been a mess that even the current government has talked about rolling it back. It’s no coincidence that London, where bus travel has boomed, was never forced to deregulate itself.

On the whole, then, I think this is a pretty fine idea. The only bump in the road could be the money. Labour says it’ll cost £1.4bn a year after five years, a figure it claims is based on use of the existing bus passes among the elderly. The Tories, assuming 10 journeys a week for every young person in Britain, put it at £13bn.

It’s tempting to assume the final figure will be somewhere between those two, but in all honesty we don’t know. This policy will change both availability of, and enthusiasm for, bus travel. What that’ll do to the final cost it’s hard to say, but Labour’s guess may well be on the low side. 

For that reason, I’m cynical about the party’s claim it can fund this by hypothecating a chunk of road tax – not least because, if fewer kids buy cars, then that must have some impact on how big that pot is. It’s a neat answer to the inevitable questions about how the party plans to fund this, but I’m not entirely convinced the sums will add up. (At lunchtime, for what it's worth, a Labour advisor emailed me to point out that a 2017 report from UCL found that making all buses free for everyone would only cost £5bn per year. So I think we can say the Tory estimate is a bit on the high side.)

If it only gets an eight and a half out of 10 as a policy, though, as a piece of politics, it’s worth at least 13. As with tuition fees and rental caps before it, the bus announcement has pushed the Tories into making a bunch of statements suggesting that they don’t care about young people, don’t think they’re worth spending money on, and don’t have the slightest clue about the problems that they face.

Nusrat Ghani, for example, accused the opposition of “bribing young people” (this, unlike bribing old people, is for some reason verboten). She also cited the millennial rail card, as her government’s contribution to getting transport costs down. Given that she’s a transport minister, this statement that shows a frankly incredible level of ignorance about how little use a railcard would be in most cities around the country. 

All that was nothing compared to the tweet from Tory chair James Cleverly – sometimes, bafflingly, tipped as a rising star – who sent a tweet implying the policy was somehow infantilising 24-year-olds. Whether he thinks the government is infantalising old people by, say, handing out winter fuel payments is a matter on which he has yet to comment.

And remember, kids, when it comes to elections Labour think you’re an adult at 16, when it comes to bus travel you’re not an adult until 25.

— James Cleverly (@JamesCleverly) April 12, 2018

If it’s ever implemented, this will, I think, be a good policy, both for local transport and for young people. But that’s a long way off. In the meantime, the main beneficiaries of the policy will be the Labour party.

Because every time a Tory sneers at the idea we could ease the burden on young people, they are sending a message. “We don’t know how to solve your problems,” it says. “This party isn’t for you.”

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
Show Hide image

Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.