Friday, 13 August 2010

Defend public transport - we should organise to stop cuts to bus and Metro services

The major story on my local radio today is the announcement of plans for drastic cuts to bus services. Strictly speaking they have announced a "consultation", but there's widespread awareness of what that really means.

This follows the news two weeks ago of plans to completely scrap free Tyne and Wear Metro passes for over-60s. This is a serious change for the worse. I pay £450 a year for my Metro pass, while anyone over 60 is entitled to an all-areas, all-times pass for just a nominal fee of £12. The plan is to abolish the over-60s scheme entirely.

Taken together these measures will mean a deterioration in public transport in the North East, and people's access to it. It sums up the irrationality of the cuts agenda, and of the society we live in.

We face catastrophe as a result of climate change. It therefore makes sense - if you put people and planet before the profits of a tiny minority - to invest far more in public transport. Instead we're being told to accept poorer bus services and a more expensive Metro.

It is widely recognised that many older people suffer social isolation and lack the close connections with others that support both individual wellbeing and social cohesion. The scrapping of free Metro travel and cuts to bus routes would make it much harder for many of them, especially the poorest, to get out and about, visit relatives and friends, etc.

Want improved public safety for children? Get more people out of cars and on to the buses and Metro trains. A nicer physical environment? The same again.

The cuts are starting to hit hard. We don't have to wait until October's spending review - it's happening now.

Listening to the vox pops on the radio, it is obvious that people are unhappy about the news of cuts to the buses. There's an awareness that it's a change for the worse and will significantly affect some people' lives.

But there are also repeated comments on the lines of "I don't see any alternative" or "I think it's inevitable now". A number of these remarks are clearly not examples of people thinking such cuts are the only option available.

These remarks are followed by comments like "This government is obviously set on making cuts". The fatalism is therefore often a sense of being too weak to resist the government, rather than a case of  ideologically 'accepting the need for cuts'.

The challenge we now face is to overcome such fatalism, to make it clear there are alternatives - and they are worth fighting for. Local campaigns, whether over public transport or in defence of other services, can start to raise a banner for doing things differently and give people hope.

Any victories, however small scale, will raise confidence to campaign against other cuts. We will need to generalise from those experiences. At the same time we have to make the economic and political case for alternatives to austerity, demonstrating why the ConDem coalition's policies are bad for economic recovery, unjust in their effects, and unnecessary.

We also need something on a bigger scale - at a national level, with connections to movements of resistance in other countries facing austerity - that can increase co-ordination and help the whole movement generalise from the successes we have.

That's where the new Coalition of Resistance initiative comes in. This national campaign is also essential because the source of decision-making behind these local cuts is in central government. We have to challenge Westminster politicians, not just the local councils, transport authorities and so on.  

The Coalition of Resistance conference is on 27 November. There will no doubt be activists in many areas of the country organising locally to build for it.

In Tyne and Wear we hope to connect local campaigning with the bigger project of building a national coalition. To that end a local planning meeting in Newcastle has been called. It will be on Wednesday 25 August, 7pm at The Bridge Hotel (upstairs), Castle Garth, Newcastle.

See Facebook Event.


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