Rail fares not going up today, Boris's cynicism and the stupidity of the Left

You thought the new London transport fares, coming in today, were going up, didn’t you? Can’t blame you if you did: “commuters will be paying far more,” stormed Val Shawcross, Labour’s London transport spokeswoman. The former mayor, Ken Livingstone, said Boris Johnson was “making the majority pay whilst protecting polluters.” The fare change, according to one tub-thumping anti-Boris blogger, was “London’s great train robbery.”

Simon Fletcher, Labour’s new London campaigns director, called it “defending the interests of the gas-guzzling few against the needs of the public transport-using many… Boris Johnson’s need to protect the pockets of families in London extends only as far as those with the most polluting cars in the capital. Everyone else, it seems, can get stuffed.”

The problem with this searing rhetoric – from which Boris’s stupider opponents clearly hope to profit this week – is that it’s all lies. If you actually look at the new fares, you might be surprised to learn the following:

1. Most commuters will not “be paying far more.” Most commuters use Travelcards, almost all of which are in fact frozen in price. Most commuters will, in real terms, be paying less.

2. With the arrival today of Oyster on National Rail, those commuters and others buying single and return tickets will actually see their fares fall – in absolute terms – by up to 35 per cent. (The off-peak single fare from Blackheath to London, for instance, drops from £3.10 to £2.) So much for “London’s great train robbery.”

3. The claim of “making the majority pay” is wrong too. Period travelcard users, one day travelcard users, Oyster rail users, children and teenagers on buses and OAPs together make up a clear majority of all journeys taken on the network. None of them, apart from a handful of travelcard users, is paying another penny this morning. “Everyone else can get stuffed”? I think not.

4. Those buying single tickets on the Tube and buses, and those buying bus passes, will pay more, often much more. But the biggest increase of all (25 per cent) is suffered by motorists who pay the congestion charge. That doesn’t sound like “protecting polluters” to me.

5. Nor is it serious politics, by the way, to continually lash Boris for sacrificing “£50 million” of TfL revenue by scrapping Ken’s proposed £25-a-day gas-guzzler charge. The whole point of charging so much was to force people to leave their gas-guzzlers at home. The charge would, therefore, have raised almost nothing.

Political spin does not have to be true – but it does have to be credible. And the problem with this particular set of lies is that from today onwards, their falsehood will become obvious. Real travellers will start paying real fares – and when most people realise that, contrary to what they’ve been told, their fares have not risen, the doom-laden predictions of Boris’s opponents will rebound.

The real foolishness of all this is that there’s actually an excellent, and true, case to be made against today’s fare changes. With their single fare rising by 20 per cent, there’s no question that bus travellers are being hammered, even though they are the group least able to pay. Bus passengers tend to be poorer, more inner-city and more Labour-voting while more prosperous, more suburban, more Tory-voting rail users are protected.

The cynicism of this behaviour, rather at odds with Boris’s cuddly image, is the attack Ken and co should have made. If, as I believe, public transport fares must rise to fund the grotesque waste of the past and the new projects of the future, the pain should at least be fairly shared. And “fairness” is a really salient political issue.

Some of Boris’s opponents still, incredibly, think of him as stupid, a “buffoon” and so on. But as the fares again show, it is he who is ruthless and they who are the stupid ones. Boris has his opponents exactly where he wants them today. Over the fares issue, they have missed the open goal of the year by not framing their charges precisely enough.

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