Wednesday 22 February 2012

Why is cycling party-political in the UK?

The list of MPs who have signed Early Day Motion 2689 supporting The Times's Cities fit for cycling campaign (58 at time of writing), analysed by party, shows clearly the strange, and perhaps unique way, in which cycling is a party-political issue in the UK.

Here is the breakdown of signatories, as a proportion of party numbers in the Commons:

Lib Dem 17/57 = 30%
Labour 31/256 = 12%
Conservative 5/305 = 1.6%
DUP 2/8 = 25%
Plaid Cymru 1/3 = 33%
SNP 1/6 = 16%
SDLP 1/3 = 33%

Of course cycling is political, in general sense: it must be, since deciding what to do to facilitate it involves taking decisions over taxation and resource allocation that advantage or disadvantage different people. That's politics. But with a Labour MP 7.5 times more likely than a Conservative MP to sign this motion, and a Lib Dem 19 times more likely, it is clear that cycling must be a party-political issue in the UK.

This is very sad, as there is no reason that cycling should intrinsically be associated with the political left, and it does not appear to be so, generally, in other countries. In the Netherlands, so far as I can see, it appears to be agreed pretty much uniformly across the political spectrum that cyclists should be made as safe as possible. Why is this not the case here?

It was a surprise that a right-of centre, "establishment" newpaper, The Times, should come out with the highest-profile pro-cycling campaign yet seen in the British media. And yet it should not have been, because there is no obvious association between cycling and the "big state", or with philosophies of social democracy or socialism. There is, indeed, an intuitive converse association, the bicycle being a facilitator of personal independence, industry and individualism, every person on a bike being, in a sense, a single unit of free enterprise. And the rhetoric of Conservative politicians has often recognised this, most famously in Norman Tebbitt's "He [his unemployed father] got on his bike and looked for work", often misquoted as the motto "Get on your bike".

So what has happened here, and can it be changed? The Conservatives, in a sense, do support, must support, the individualism, the personal freedom of the "man on the bike". But they have got more involved, historically, with the freedom of the "man in the car". As the party most associated with the upper classes, as those classes graduated, in the early years of the 20th century, from the fashion of bikes to the fashion of cars, so the Conservatives moved with them, and the bike became more associated with the "working man", who was naturally represented by the Labour party. And yet this was not a simple, nor a uniform story. It was the Labour Government that removed speed limits in 1930, and a visionary conservative  Minister of Transport, Leslie Hore-Belisha, who reintroduced them in 1934, together with the driving test and other road-safety measures, and promoted probably the best cycle facilities the UK ever had.

But, broadly, in the post-war period, the Conservatives came to regard the motor car ever more as a symbol of personal freedom and individual life-success, and while not anti-bike, probably thought of the bike, if at all, as something that had just been left behind in the technological march of history, like the horse-drawn plough. Conservative mentions of cycling came mostly in backward-looking idealisations of Britain, as in John Major's re-quoting of George Orwell's "Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist". When an "ecological left" arose at the radical edge of politics in the 70s and 80s to take up a space previously occupied by a state socialism widely regarded as discredited, it took up the bike and thus, by repulsion, pushed right-wingers further from it. In the new century, the appearance of prominent Conservatives, notably Boris Johnson and David Cameron, who, on the surface at least, seemed to espouse cycling, for a combination of traditional Conservative reasons and a desire to get in on the Green bandwagon, led some rashly to suggest that when these men took power, the roads status-quo would shift. They were sadly disappointed.

The practicalities of the accommodation of personal transport in the public space of our dense, old cities are clear to all. There is a certain amount of space, and to re-prioritise the bike means that space must be gained from somewhere, and the big area from which it can be taken is the space currently used for moving and parked motor vehicles. The extent to which this must reduce the space for cars is generally exaggerated, because space is typically used very inefficiently on our roads at the moment, and there is much wasted space in over-wide traffic lanes that could be reallocated, when combined with the complete redesign of streets from one side to the other, in a way that in fact does not reduce motor vehicle capacity very much. Likewise, there is no need to decimate car parking in redesigning cities to be cycle-friendly. The Dutch have not done this, and their car ownership rates remain high. It is the space at junctions that is at a premium. At junctions, cars generally spread out into multiple lanes to fill the space, and this squeezes cyclists out. It is the space and time at junctions that cyclists need that will always be the biggest source of contention.

But contention for space on the roads there is, and a major factor here is that the political right has convinced itself that motor traffic is inextricably associated with economic growth, and hence prosperity, and hence quality of life. The negative influences of motor traffic on that quality of life may be apparent to them as well, in terms of pollution, ill-health, noise, ugliness and alienation, but these are weighed-up as being less important in the end. These downsides are, in their minds, associated with the complaints of those hair-shirt prophets of doom who have always been, in the past, proven to be wrong, and the best interests of the majority do seem to them to be tied up with continuing to prioritise motor traffic.

There is also the geo-political aspect: British Conservatives are heavily influenced by the American social paradigm, which the policies of Eisenhower, after the Second World War, inextricably linked to personal motorised independence and economic dependence on the roads, though the urban sprawl and despoilage of the countryside that this entailed in a small country like the UK certainly upset a traditional shire Conservative faction. On the other hand, as the main examples of advanced industrialised countries that have re-habilitated the bike are on the continent of Europe, in countries that have espoused more left-leaning social market systems than the UK, and in some, though not all, cases, are closely associated with the European integration project, this also makes Conservatives mistrustful of the idea of the state siding more with the cyclist.

Can things change? The statistics on EDM 2689 suggest they are not changing very much. One change has been apparent for a number of years, which has been the increasing number of middle-class commuting cyclists in London, associated mostly with the financial, legal and media industries. This, indirectly, has given rise to The Times's campaign, as one of them, their journalist Mary Bowers, was nearly killed by a lorry. Danny, the Cyclists in the City blogger, is always pointing out how big cycling has become now amongst employees and bosses of the City's financial institutions, and how this is clearly having an effect, at least on the local roads policies of that staunchly conservative (with a small c) body, the Corporation of London.

But Cameron, strikingly, never took the cycling thing forward after he became PM, indeed he seemed to have ditched it much earlier, and he put the primitively pro-car and pro-big-lorry Philip Hammond in charge of transport, replacing him, for extraneous reasons, with the possibly marginally more enlightened Justine Greening late last year. And Greening still has to work with a Road Safety Minister, Mike Penning, who hasn't the slightest clue about either cycling or road safety.

The cycling portfolio is held by Lib Dem Under-Secretary of State Norman Baker, whose achievements cannot be said to have been conspicuous. Yes, he has made it easier for local authorities to change by-laws forbidding cycling in parks, and there has been a change of policy on the (entirely common-sense) idea of allowing cyclists to contraflow on one way streets where signs are put up to allow this. But this government's sustainable transport initiatives have failed to target cycling, mixing it up, in the funding competition, with bus and tram schemes. Because facilitating cycling always involves taking difficult political decisions, if you don't give it its own pot of cash, but make it compete with other so-called "sustainable" modes, it will always loose. Boris Johnson did exactly the same in London, abolishing specific cycling funding to the boroughs, replacing the category with obtuse "corridors" and "neighbourhoods" labels for pots of money that allowed councils to back away entirely from the difficult choices around cycling, going for spending the money instead on general street-prettifying schemes, labelled "public realm improvements", that have no effect on modal split. And Boris Johnson's personal association with cycling comes across as rather more a manifestation of a traditional English eccentric type than as part of any real political shift of the right towards cycling.

And yet cycling should not be "of the left". Cycling is free enterprise. It needs facilitating by infrastructure the state must provide, it is true, it always has needed this, it is dependent on proper roads or cycle paths, but motor transport is similarly dependent, and, of course, far more cash-hungry. Facilitated, cycling becomes a prominent component of transport in economically successful and advanced societies, as wealthy cities across the world, from Geneva to Copenhagen to Tokyo, testify. The associations between cycling, freedom, efficiency and free enterprise can never be entirely submerged by the Anglophone right's concept of "roads for cars". The right is opposed to a "nanny state": but creating the conditions where children could again realise the transport independence through cycling they once had in the UK would be a massive de-nannying liberation for our kids, and their parents. Then there are the purely economic arguments, that building cycle infrastructure is cheaper than not building it. And of course, Conservatives are supposed to want a strong, independent state. The state is less independent if it dependent on imported oil.

The best way into the cycling agenda from a Conservative perspective would seem to be an emphasis on allowing people more transport choice. The status-quo makes people feel they have no choice but to use their cars for many inappropriate journeys. Allowing people more choice over all aspects of their lives is supposed to be a Conservative principle. Choice is not a simple matter, however. The investment choices that the state makes affects the choices people can make on a daily basis. The state has no choice whether to invest in transport, it has to. But it has a choice in how it divvies up the cash. At the simplest level, that's all The Times campaign is pointing out.

It is easy to argue for investment in cycling from a Conservative perspective, indeed, The Times is doing just that, but the list of signatories to EDM 2689 show that few of our current crop of Conservative politicians have grasped this point, preferring to remain, if one notes capitalisation, more conservative than Conservative. A political opportunity if ever there was one?


  1. The Conservative Party's collective lack of enthusiasm for cycling is understandable. There is indeed a Tory-nostalgic A.N.Wilson element which distrusts cars and likes old-fashioned bicycles: the archetypal pipe-smoking High-Church Hugo with his tweed jackets and his interest in (classical) architecture. But below that thin crust of upper-class eccentrics the mass of the active party these days is decidely arriviste and made up of aggressively Clarksonish SUV-driving types with a world view which conflates "so-called" global warming, speed cameras, political correctness and the EU into some vast plot against them. In their view cyclists are either benefit-claiming losers too poor to afford a car, or left-wing subversives out to undermine their way of life: the Daily Mail's beloved "War on the Motorist." Where I live a Conservative councillor was campaigning a few years back for more on-road parking, on the grounds that go-getting households need two or three cars, and that 4x4s are too big to fit into garages designed in the days when people were less obese.

    Plus which, the Conservative Party is always in danger of being outflanked here by UKIP, the only UK political party which actually has a policy on cycling: broadly that there should be less of it. That party's 2010 manifesto called for segregated cycle paths (i.e. "get the scum off the roads"), mandatory tests for all cyclists regardless of age, and a scheme of compulsory insurance which would have been licensing in all but name. Delightfully, one of the signatories of this bit of their manifesto was called Alan Partridge...

    Much of their hostility to cycling also comes from the fact that it's irrevocably associated in their minds with "Europe". When I was a child in the 1950s "Scandinavian bicycle- monarchies" was regularly used in the media as a put-down for insignificant little countries like Holland and Denmark which didn't have nuclear weapons and a properly motorised royal family like our own, and that attitude still lingers to this day: a vague association with egalitarian socialistic little countries where people eat raw herrings and wear machine-knitted jerseys with reindeers and pine trees on them. Quite simply, we don't want any of that sort of thing over here thank you very much.

    So don't expect too much from our present government is my advice, the Times campaign notwithstanding. Once the Daily Mail and their own grassroots start a counter-campaign the Tories will soon lose interest.

    Sticker frequently seen in the back windows of SUVs round where I live: "Actually I DO own the road".

  2. Judging from the blogo/twittersphere, urban cyclists are more numerous and far more politicised than rural cyclists. That might help explain the (almost entirely urban) Labour response? Not sure if it can explain the Lib Dem response.

    You missed the single MP Green Party from the list.

  3. You describe the Times as a right-of-centre newspaper, which is of course true, but its staff will be of all political complexions. You might recall one of the most celebrated examples, Paul Foot, luminary of the Socialist Workers’ Party and employee of a right-wing tabloid (Express or Mail?) I don’t think he, or his employers, found the conflict of outlook unmanageable.

    A newspaper’s political tone is set by its proprietor, and it can change though probably only where it makes commercial sense to do so – Rupert Murdoch steered the Sun towards Labour during the Blair years. And right now Murdoch is grievously, if not mortally wounded so his staff can open up a bit about something which clearly matters to them whatever their politics. They work unsocial hours, public transport isn’t great for their commuting, they can’t get car parking and they can’t afford taxis every day so they cycle.

    As to whether cycling is party-political, there does seem to be a marked difference at the backbench level, although evidently Labour is hardly better than the Conservatives, but in any case you have to judge them by what they do at front-bench level. There, frankly, Blair identified himself explicitly with “Mondeo Man” and “war on the motorist” is not an expression invented by the Conservatives. The last Roads Minister, Jim Fitzpatrick, hasn’t been particularly supportive of the EDM either.

    Arguably, Tories have a respectable basis for their position. Their libertarian outlook demands freedom of choice, without influence or interference. No “nanny state”, a free market in labour and goods etc. It evidently means that a cyclist or pedestrian is free to place his head between the jaws of the traffic lion, but so is a corner shop free to be wiped out by a Tesco Metro opening across the road or a farmer is free to choose which of a handful of rapacious predatory supermarkets he can sell his milk or his lamb to. I am not sure how they rationalise that, but evidently they do.

    It all comes down to money, and national politics in this country, like almost everywhere else, is corrupted by it. The motor industry has oceans of the stuff, and a powerful vested interest in promoting its model of ever-growing car ownership and use. Sadly there are no similar industries with vested interests in walking or cycling. Brompton up against BMW? The motor industry can therefore spend its way to what it wants from politicians and the press in a way that other road user interests can never hope to do.

    It is often argued that the global motor industry is a major creator of wealth (however you define that term). I would agree that it is a major consumer of wealth, as can be seen by what happens when any society starts to get richer – I was able to observe the changes in Irish society in the early 90s as EU money and inward investment (temporarily) transformed their economy. The streets of Dublin quickly became choked and pretty unpleasant for non-motorists, for a while. Whether it is a creator of wealth is an altogether different proposition. Even from its very beginnings, it is not clear that any significant mass-producer of motor vehicles has survived without subsidies, whether from governments or from unsatisfied creditors left high and dry by their regular lapses into bankruptcy/administration. We are most familiar here with the basket cases of the Midlands motor industry but both Chrysler and GM have been on the brink, and all of them have been propped up with regional aid grants, soft loans, favoured-supplier status for overpriced public or military vehicle fleets etc. I haven’t seen anything to convince me that this has changed. Could their piggy-bank run dry any time soon? Could this government, or its successor, finally shake off the yoke and recognise the need to plan for an alternative future? Could the mass of dispossessed young people, two thirds of whom don’t even have a driving licence and couldn’t afford a car if they did, seethe sufficiently for them to take notice?

  4. Perhaps it's not Left-Right, but rather large-small. People may enter party politics with either some or no hope of getting a chauffeur-driven car one day.

  5. I've emailed Tim Loughton, our Conservative MP who also has particular interest and responsibility for children's issues. I'm surprised, given that the biggest cause of premature death (and increasingly restricted and unhealthy lifestyles) for children is motor traffic, that he hasn't yet signed up to EDM 2689.

    Here the Lib Dems have spotted the potential in safer streets and providing for safe cycling, but the Tories seem to be stuck in their motor-centric dogma. As congestion (with many hundreds of new edge-of-town homes being built) and fuel prices increase, I suspect the traditional Tory voters here might start wondering if they're voting for the right transport policies...

  6. Also note that the Guardian, which is supposedly pro-cycling, has studiously avoided mentioning The Times' cycling campaign, another case of Not Invented Here.

    The focus on cars is also a consequence of politicians of all stripes pandering to the large supermarket chains, that have large car parks out of town. Sadly small local shops seem to tend to oppose a lot of pro-cycling measure in the misguided impression that people "need" to be able to park, ignoring the fact that if they get in the car they might as well go all the way to the supermarket and get all the shopping done in one go.

  7. Great post!

    It is disappointing that Conservatives are failing to be conservative over this issue.

    A quick pointer over your numbers:

    Because EDMs are rarely signed by "Ministers and government whips; Parliamentary Private Secretaries; and The Speaker and his deputies,"[1] it may be worthwhile compiling the breakdown of signatories as a breakdown of backbench signatories instead.

    Backbenchers may also be more indicative of the feelings of the party as a whole.

    Of course some among those who rarely sign EDMs have broken ranks to do so in this case (eg. Jo Swinson, LibDem, PPS to Nick Clegg).


  8. Apparently Tory MPs don't really like EDM's so tend not to sign them anyway.

  9. Maybe this break-down just shows how much these politicians, and their partes, care about people how are not driving cars at a particular moment.