So I know that having lived in the north for all of five minutes, I don’t really get to do this, but humour me for a bit. Chris Grayling’s response this week to George Osborne saying we need a Crossrail for the north has bemused and fucked me off in almost equal measure.
Basically, he seemed to say that it was local councils’ job to invest in transport infrastructure, and that the government was already doing an extremely great job of their part in this, investing £13bn – £13 billion! look at all them zeroes! – over the course of this parliament. Never mind that £13bn is actually not that much in the context of infrastructure investment, especially when you consider the level of chronic underinvestment we need to make up for, and the fact that the UK has some of the worst regional inequality in Europe. What really confused me about this was that he could seriously believe anyone who actually lives in the north would be impressed.
You can bandy about impressive sounding figures all you like, but we’re cycling every day on roads with potholes that make your teeth chatter when you ride over them; we’re abandoning the shitty Stagecoach buses because they’re slower than walking and more expensive than an Uber; we’re (still) squeezing into crappy Northern train carriages that are actually decades-old repurposed buses, despite repeated promises to replace them. We can see that you’re not doing anything about any of these things, because, um, they’re not getting any better.
In fact, wait a minute, aren’t you the same person who banned local authorities from setting up bus companies last year? So, while I used to be able to get a bus run by TfL to basically anywhere in London for £1.50, in Manchester I have to pay Stagecoach nearly three quid to go three miles into town, and you have literally told my local council they aren’t allowed to set up a publicly run alternative? Pro tip: if you’re trying to pass the buck to somebody else, it’ll look more convincing if you haven’t just tied their hands behind their back.
This has made me think about the fact that no political rhetoric, no matter how good it is, can trump somebody’s lived experience. When it tries, all it does is contribute to people’s growing sense that politicians are either so out of touch they genuinely believe their own bullshit, or so arrogant they think that we’re stupid enough to believe it.
I was thinking about this as the week’s other big “trains + bullshit” news story broke – the release of cast-iron proof that, yes, the train Jeremy Corbyn sat on the floor of actually was really overcrowded, contrary to Richard Branson’s attempted smears. I’d always wondered whether ‘Traingate’ was ever as damaging to Corbyn as its architects intended, for precisely this reason: we’ve all been that person, sat on the floor of an overcrowded train. Whatever people were led to believe about the circumstances on this particular journey, surely everyone knew that the experience being highlighted was real enough – and were glad to see a politician finally promising to address it? If the popularity of Labour’s manifesto pledge to renationalise the railways is anything to go by, yes.
I’m still hoping that Labour is going to come out all guns blazing next week with a shiny new set of promises to fix the north’s transport system – even if it’s just a repackaging of announcements made before. It just feels like a huge open goal right now – though the timing, in the middle of August with half of Westminster on holiday, is a bit unfortunate.
More generally, I reckon there is an enormous political prize to be won for a party that puts forward an investment strategy that doesn’t talk in meaningless numbers but in terms of the reality of people’s lives. That shitty, overcrowded commuter train you’re stuck with if you live in Gorton? We’re going to sort that out. That rip-off bus company that regularly makes you wait 20-30 minutes for a service into town? We’ll sort that out too.
There are really exciting possibilities, for instance, in combining Momentum’s grassroots organising capacity with Labour’s local and national policy making: actually inviting people to help set their own priorities for what needs fixing. Not the kind of craven abdication of responsibility that lurks beneath Grayling’s exhortations for the north to “take control” – but a genuinely participatory strategy for regeneration and modernisation.
Because I’ve been a northerner now for, ooh, well over five million seconds, and I can tell you we’re not as gullible as Chris Grayling seems to think we are.