James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
A transport policy for those “just about managing”.
Corbyn’s stunt of sitting on the floor of a cramped train was a neat idea, misdirected. It highlighted the problem of overcrowding on trains and showed Corbyn happy to share a burden faced by others. But it also showed Westminster’s continued misunderstanding of provincial England.
Metropolitan professionals take trains but for those “just about managing”, they’re way less important. In my report of C1 and C2 voters last year, half in provincial England’s marginal seats hadn’t used a train in a year. Driving is by far the most popular mode of transport; trains are often inconvenient and local buses can be extortionately expensive.
So Corbyn should have sat in a traffic jam. As The Times reported yesterday, he could have easily found snail-paced motorways by driving (or being driven) down the M606 between the M62 and Bradford (average speed 24.6mph) or the M32 into Bristol, the M621 into Leeds or the M60 near Manchester.
Politicians seldom talk about cars. When they do, it’s almost as if they’re embarrassed – as if they’re addressing an old-fashioned little group that needs pandering to when they get noisy (like when the oil price rises). I can’t think of the last time a senior, mainstream politician gave a speech devoted to making life easier for drivers. This is extraordinary.
There are four simple things the Government should have in mind: (a) cutting the costs of motoring, which next to mortgage payments is a massive cost for many families; (b) improve parking; (c) moving to energy-efficiency driving in a thoughtful way; and (d) committing to greater road investment.
On the first, the Government could axe Vehicle Excise Duty and reduce fuel taxes to bring the cost of petrol down. Combined, this would make a material difference to the vast majority of drivers almost immediately (and particularly those just about managing, whose income and expenditure are often the same).
On the second, many towns and cities across Britain would benefit from the abolition of all parking charges. Too many have pedestrianised streets and discouraged driving. Sometimes this has been necessary but often, particularly in towns in the North and Midlands, this has turned once-thriving shopping areas into wastelands. With the return of free car parking, people would be encouraged to return.
On the third, the Government must be aware that people are cash-strapped and cannot switch to greener cars easily; particularly when until recently they were encouraged to buy diesel cars by environmentalists, only to be told they were more polluting. The Government could announce that VED and higher fuel taxes will return in, say, a decade for those cars that don’t meet required standards. This will give everyone fair warning that they need to change in time.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Government’s new investment program must focus on roads, not just trains. This will make a much larger difference to ordinary families – and provincial towns like market towns – than train lines. Politicians should show they’re proud to support drivers.