England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Demanding better buses: Fight for free public transport

a double decker bus

The central role that buses play in enabling ordinary people to engage in their lives remains a hot political issue as our bus routes are cut and ticket prices continue to spiral out of control, especially for the millions of households without access to a car (that is 23.9% of households in England). Buses also have an important role to play in green planning, as when accessible and convenient, public transport provides an environmentally friendly form of travel.

But Labour leaders, like the Tories, have been missing in action when it comes to providing our communities with the bus services that we need, whilst at the same time we are berated for ‘choosing’ to drive polluting cars when they themselves have been the ones who have made our bus networks both unaffordable and unworkable. 

Private profit or public need?

Margaret Thatcher of course famously initiated the privatisation of public transport in the 1980s, which not only led to the erosion of bus services across the entire country, and also to the reduction in the wages and conditions of the workers who run our bus networks. All the while, the companies who were gifted our country’s bus networks have made millions at the public’s expense.

Three leading transport profiteers in this regard are: FirstGroup, which last year announced a £500 million shareholder payout; Arriva, which is owned by Deutsche Bahn – a state-owned giant which boasts of making €40bn in annual revenues; and Go-Ahead, which last month was once again cloaked in scandal when it emerged that they had ”not declared more than £25m in taxpayer funding that should have been returned since 2014.”

Another guilty party to the ongoing tragedy that is transport profiteering is Stagecoach, a company which despite the Covid-19 pandemic turned a profit of £58.4 million last year; but, like the other private-sector bus owners, pay their drivers a pittance.

As if the wages of bus drivers were not low enough, inflation is now soaring to 7.1 per cent (RPI). In response, transport workers have been getting organized and taking action into their own hands. Thus, in recent months unionised bus drivers have taken successful strike action for better pay up and down the country. That being the case it should be recognised that even after obtaining significant pay rises, bus drivers’ pay remains woefully low. Bus drivers at Go Northwest in Manchester took strike action to defeat attempts by their employer to fire and rehire them on worse contracts last year, and to fire the first female driver at the company (effectively for being ‘too short’) this year.

We need a publicly-owned transport system

If we are serious about ensuring that bus workers get the pay they deserve, we need to kick all corporate profiteers out of public transport. In that way we can guarantee that those workers who provide vital services for our communities will get the pay they need to live their lives.

Taking transport back into public ownership can simultaneously contribute towards ongoing efforts to fight to stave off the global climate emergency. This point is important because public transport, when properly funded and democratically organized, can help protect the environment by encouraging people to use communal transport solutions rather than cars (which all too often are cheaper to use than buses).

Taking our bus networks back into public ownership therefore needs to be a top priority for socialists and trade unionists. But as important as this issue may be, this is no priority of the Labour Party. In fact, Sir Keir Starmer’s lackluster position vis-à-vis the nationalisation of vital public services, like that of buses, represents a reversal of Corbyn’s 2019 Manifesto commitment to promote “public ownership of bus networks” and “introduce free bus travel for under-25s.”

But as socialists, we don’t limit our demands to nationalisation and free travel for some. We believe public transport should be made free for everyone. 

Tory “solutions”

The approach of the Tories, however, has been to put forward policies such as the “Bus Back Better” scheme, which has been readily followed by right-wing Labour councils. In exchange for a share of the limited government funding for buses, councils cravenly embrace the Tories illogical and coercive partnership approach to managing bus networks, often even trying to sell it to their constituents as something positive.

Schemes like this amount to an entrenching of private sector monopolies in public transport, in return for certain ‘regulations’. But in reality, these do little to improve transport networks for commuters. Instead, companies are able to continue making massive profits while continuing the race to the bottom in terms of unreliable services, high ticket prices, and attacks on the working conditions of transport workers.

Government documents leaked to the press last month make it clear that “the budget for the ‘transformation’ of buses – a pot from which local regions can bid for funds – has now shrunk [from £3 bn] to just £1.4bn for the next three years.” And it is very clear that most local authorities will be unable to rely on this funding as “the amount of funding bids submitted by 53 out of 79 local transport authorities from the extra funding pot is already more than £7bn. This suggests the total is likely to exceed £9bn, against a total available of £1.4bn.” This and other examples in the press clearly put the lie to the Tories’ so-called “levelling-up” agenda!

Once again both the Tories and Labour (the so-called opposition) are looking after big business while workers are left to fight their own battles for fair pay and decent public services. Yes, we need better public transport, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of sacrificing democratic control over services, and certainly local authorities shouldn’t be reduced to begging for the crumbs being thrown at them by the Tories.

All profiteers need to be immediately booted out of our public transport infrastructure, with compensation to companies only paid on the basis of proven need not to further furnish corporate greed.

Public transport should be publicly owned, run democratically by transport workers and the travelling public, and free for all. None of the pro-capitalist parties in parliament are willing to fight for it, we need to build a movement linking up the fights of public transport workers with other workers fighting back against rising living and transport costs, and with the youth-led struggle against the climate crisis, to demand it. Such a movement, organised democratically could co-ordinate industrial action, school strikes and wider protests to force the hand of central and local government. This could lay the basis for a new mass left party, based in struggle that can take our struggles forward and fight to  meet the urgent needs of both ordinary people and the planet.


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