Monthly Archives: February 2014

Positive Politics – Labour’s Transport Policies for the South of England


The 2015 parliamentary campaign in the Guildford constituency is already well under way. Almost every day there is some sort of local Labour Party event. Yesterday I took time out to visit Westminster and attend the Labour Southern Group of MPs. Its chairman, Ben Bradshaw, invited Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) from the South East, South West and Eastern regions to attend.

I had already met some of the other PPCs there and it was great to swap campaigning tips and meet the hardworking MPs. I was sitting beside Mike Le-Surf and Chris Vince.

The guest speaker at the meeting was Mary Creagh MP, Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary.

Mary Creagh MP, Shadow Transport Secretary

Mary Creagh MP, Shadow Transport Secretary

This was brilliant news because transport issues are so important in Guildford and Surrey generally, as well as in the South East. Also, I’m particularly interested because I have worked in the transport industry for the last 14 years as an airline pilot.

The Department of Transport (DfT) has an annual budget of around £13 billion, spread over a huge range of activities and including many executive agencies like the Highways Agency. Mary was completely on top of all the detail for every part of the brief. It was great to listen to how each part of the transport portfolio meshes with the others and joins up with key policies in other departments, such as housing and the environment.

What really struck me was how positive Labour’s positions on transport are. There is great scope to improve how the transport budget is spent and sustainable transportation, planned properly, could have a massive benefit to a huge number of people.

I had travelled to Westminster by train and tube after parking my car at the station car park. The preceding five days saw me fly 14 flights in and out of Heathrow, spending nights in Munich, Zurich and Newcastle. I hadn’t used boat transport recently, but I felt I understood some of the challenges we were discussing anyway!

In Guildford, we have been campaigning for a cap in the rise of rail fares. This petition has received a great response from local commuters. A big part of the discussion with Mary was “How do we get a better rail network for commuters?”. This is rightly a priority because commuters have been ripped off since 2010 and the service is inadequate. We need a “3rd way on the railways” I think. The private Train Operating Companies seem concerned only with short term profits. I was interested to hear about how they neglect the recruitment and training of new drivers. A high proportion of drivers were trained (very thoroughly) by British Rail. Where will the next generation of skilled drivers come from if the TOCs don’t take responsibility for this?

Bus deregulation has failed many communities including in Surrey. Mary spoke about how communities will have greater say in how their bus services are re-regulated. The centre of Guildford gets gridlocked frequently and only proper local transport planning can alleviate this. Sadly, for residents and businesses, Surrey County Council is not up to the task. I agree that national government should have “last resort” powers to intervene. We saw during the Christmas floods that poor transport planning and traffic gridlock actually endangered lives and property because emergency supplies could not be moved by road around Guildford.

I asked Mary about runway capacity in the South East. Many constituents depend on Heathrow or Gatwick directly or indirectly and those of us who work there are very proud of the contribution we make to the economy of the whole country and continent. David Cameron has been incredibly weak by instructing the Davies Commission not to report its findings until after the 2015 election. Hopefully there will be some progress, such as ruling out Boris Island, before then.

While HS2 has not come up on the doorsteps of Guildford yet, it is a critical issue elsewhere. Instinctively I’m in favour but we need to ensure public money is well-spent too. This is an example of the interconnectedness of transport policy. Rail connections to northern cities are vital to mitigate the overcrowding and housing problems in London and the South East. Without HS2 I don’t see a solution.

We covered so many other issues in a fast-moving stimulating discussion: cycling, transport access to hospitals, home to school transport, bio fuels in aviation, concessionary bus fares for young people to go to college, level crossings, ports and freight transport.

The key message I took was that transport policy needs to be taken by the scruff of the neck, not left to wander wherever the market takes it. It is really pleasing that Mary Creagh is so enthusiastic about what could be achieved and so positive about how we will do it after 2015.

 

Debate: What future for the European Union?


Last night, I attended this debate between European Parliament election candidates at Royal Holloway University of London in Egham:

debate

There was a large audience, mostly students, who were very engaged with the subject. It started late because some candidates had been delayed by the extreme weather conditions and flooding nearby but it continued about an hour after the published finish time, so we weren’t short-changed. Also, the Conservative representative was actually Richard Robinson MEP.

An unusual aspect of the upcoming Euro election is that all of the candidates at the debate might well be elected. It is a proportional representation system, so every vote counts for the party it is cast for. For example, Labour votes in strongly Tory areas are added to Labour votes in strongly Labour areas to give a total for the whole South East. This is then compared to all the other parties to determine how many of the ten MEPs come from each party.

This is very different from Westminster elections where there can be only one winner in each constituency and there are no prizes for second place. There were many issues which united most of the candidates at last night’s debate. In a first-past-the-post contest candidates might have aggressively disagreed with each other more. In the European Parliament, MEPs cooperate more with each other than we see at Westminster, where punch-and-judy contests are more common.

However, as Labour’s Anneliese Dodds said, the centre of gravity of the European Parliament at the moment is on the right and this election can move it towards the centre-left. One questioner objected to cooperation between MEPs. He complained that four of the five candidates would probably agree on 70% of votes. The party that doesn’t like to cooperate is UKIP.

What has the EU done for us?

Three main categories of achievements spring to mind:

  1. Social Rights. For example, paid holidays – although British companies might have given workers paid holidays outside the EU, they would still have to compete with foreign companies who didn’t if the EU hadn’t mandated it.
  2. Consumer Rights. For example, the European Parliament voted 506-6 in favour of improving rights for disabled air travellers. Since this applies across the EU, airlines and countries cannot undercut each other and compete on a level playing field. Incidentally, only UKIP voted against.
  3. Environmental Protection. Outside the EU, Britain could work to clean up our beaches but without agreements with our neighbours their rubbish could be washed up on our beaches and vice versa. Working together benefits us all.

By cooperating on issues which affect us all, everyone in the EU can gain. The EU Solidarity Fund was discussed last night. If Britain applied, we could receive funding to cover 5% of the cost of the current highly-damaging floods in England. At the time of writing, David Cameron has still not requested this from the EU. This goes to the heart of the problem with the EU “debate” in this country: inherent xenophobia of the right. Cameron used to tell his party to “stop banging on about Europe”. He position is too weak in his party to tell them that today. Tory backbenchers froth at the mouth when they rant about foreigners. UKIP has given them permission to let loose and reveal their irrational fear. They are suffering from a phobia.

Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate… 

UKIP exists because of fear. It is part of their orthodoxy. Julia Reid, their representative last night, started by exhibiting xenophobia. She tried to revive fears of 29 million Romanians and Bulgarians coming “over here”. The reason Keith Vaz didn’t find any at Luton Airport was, she claimed, that they all arrived by bus, being too poor to afford air travel. There was no evidence for this, of course.

Her party has underlying homophobia and other fears too. She displayed paranoia when claiming climate change didn’t exist and it was a conspiracy of the scientific elite. She actually said that other scientists had disproven climate change but their work was censored by publications and the media. This sort of delusional rubbish can be read on some internet forums or heard from Daily Mail readers in pubs but this audience was mostly educated students, so eventually she was treated with contempt and laughed at, I’m pleased to report.

Nobody knows what UKIP’s policies are. Nigel Farage says their last manifesto was “drivel”. However, abolishing the NHS seems to be one of their plans. Deputy Leader Paul Nuttall and their PPC in Guildford, Harry Aldridge, have both said publicly they would prefer an insurance system instead.

Julia Reid even said that Britain should halt military cooperation with other European countries. She implied that France’s export of Exocet missiles to Argentina in about 1980 was a casus belli. UKIP is not just an amusing home for deranged bigoted pub-talk, people could actually get hurt if they achieve the electoral success they seek.

I saw two elderly UKIP supporters who had accompanied Reid marching the university corridors afterwards thunder-faced attempting to give leaflets to students. They caused bemusement and mirth here, let’s hope the rest of the country leaves them talking to themselves too.

Back in the land of the sane

UKIP was a distraction but the rest of the debate was very interesting. The EU helps countries come together for the good of their citizens. Improved fair trade agreements give Britain influence on the global stage it could not achieve on its own. Measures to reduce carbon emissions and prevent animal cruelty all have to include cross-border cooperation. Without the EU these important achievements would not be possible.

It is vital that we have capable, committed MEPs representing us in Europe. The Tory MEP, Richard Robinson, is anti-EU and, like the other Tory MEPs, is no longer part of a mainstream grouping in the European Parliament. If our country is marginalised we cannot influence the direction of the EU and we will all lose out.

Anneliese Dodds, the Labour candidate, showed that she understands the issues in Europe and has the talent and ability to fight Britain’s corner and win for the people of the South East.

Sophia James

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