Confessions of a Political Animal

November 27, 2008

A Western Democracy?

cc-signIt probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that Boris Johnson has today announced that he will be scrapping the Western Extension of the Congestion Charge. We noted before that there had been straws in the wind in the opposite direction and that Johnson had been modifying his language and moving towards the ‘third option’ of the modification of the charge – and indeed even as late as yesterday the Evening Standard, normally a good barometer of the mayoral climate, was bigging up the compromise option. But despite this, and blue Boris trying to present himself as green Boris as recently as Tuesday, the candidate’s hyperbole over the western extension had simply been too great for any kind of credible u-turn to be executed with any kind of credibility.

The Animal’s previous posts on this subject have pointed out that Johnson had been trying to play the great democrat on this issue, whilst sticking to a very limited definition of democracy. We quoted Johnson previously as having said

“The previous Mayor made the decision to introduce the western extension in the face of overwhelming opposition. Unlike my predecessor, I am going into this with an open mind and this will be a genuine consultation. It is high time that politicians listened to the people whom they represent and I am proud to keep the pledge made during my election campaign to hold a further consultation. Londoners can be assured that, whether they stand for or against, this time their opinions will be respected and we will abide by the results. […] This is not a referendum, so it won’t be limited to a ‘do you or don’t you want to keep it?’”

Of course, it wasn’t as simple as that: whilst the GLA’s original consultation on the western extension did indeed find opposition to the scheme, but as with every consultation this was based on a self-selecting sample. At the same time, TfL undertook a more scientific study of opinions in and around the proposed extension zone, which found a 50%-28% split in favour of the proposal.

The Animal was pleased to note that Johnson was intending to run similar scientific research alongside his re-run of the consultation. After this became public knowledge I wrote

But this begs the question of what will the Mayor do if, say, the consultation comes out as wanting to scrap the scheme (as I expect it will), with the TfL-commissioned survey in favour of either retention or the implementation of the amended scheme (again, I expect that it will, the London wide survey at least).

Well, looks like my prediction was correct – although there’s no way you’d realise that without digging into the TfL documents that accompany today’s announcement. According to the press release

The representative attitudinal survey which was carried out alongside the consultation also showed a preference for removal of the Western Extension.

Except it doesn’t.

The graph on page 8 of the document linked above show clearly the outcomes: 67% of general public consultation responses were in favour of scrapping the zone, with a total of 34% in favour of either retention or modification. However, in the general public attitudinal survey, 41% were in favour of scrapping, compared to 45% for retention or modification (14% don’t know). Now as the 45% breaks down as 30% retention, 15% modification, you could make an argument that on a basis of pluralities, there is indeed a preference for scrapping. But that would be a gross over-simplification, as these are not three wholly independent options. A respondent in favour of the modifications (the key one of which was a non-payment period in the middle of the day) has, effectively, accepted and approved the principle of the western extension, but believe it needs modifications. That, to my mind, makes these responses a sub-set of the ‘retain’ respondents. It seems to me more likely that a pro-retention respondent is going to be more in favour of modifications than scrapping, and vice versa.

So, on the basis of these results, how should a believer in Johnsonian democracy (‘the policy the most people want is the right one’) proceed? Surely the modification option represents the optimal outcome from this split of opion if we are simply measuring public happiness with the policy outcome. But instead, on the basis of a plurality win for scrapping, the Mayor is claiming public support for this option. The cynic in me is starting to see a clever ploy here: was the third option in fact introduced to the debate in order to prevent the embarasment of a narrow win for retention in a two-way fight? Of course, Boris won’t mind if he is described as someone who ignores the will of the people will he now? Sauce for the goose, and all that.

Also of interest, although again a self-selecting sample, is the fact that the stakeholder groups responding to the consultation were heavily in favour of either retention or modification. So, who has the Mayor placed himself in opposition to? Well ‘Green’ Boris is ignoring the opinions of the Campaign for Clean Air in London, Friends of the Earth, the Campaign to Protect Rural England [?!] or Kensington & Chelsea Environment Roundtable; ‘cyclist’ Boris isn’t going to listen to the London Cycling Campaign; ‘business-friendly’ Boris isn’t interested in what CBI London, the City of London, the Freight Transport Association, or London First have to say; ‘health inequality tackling’ Boris won’t lose too much sleep over the views of the British Heart Foundation or the Royal College of Nurses. ‘Listening to the locals’ Boris will over-rule the Knightsbridge Association and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Hell, even pro-motorist Boris will ignore the Institute of Advanced Motorists and Mobilise (formerly the Disabled Drivers’ Motor Club). That’s a pretty wide range of opinion he’s setting himself up against.

On the other hand, the 12 stakeholder groups responding in favour of scrapping the zone include four boroughs not even in the western extension (including, astonishingly, Bexley), Johnson’s own Conservative group on the Assembly, (shamefully) the Liberal Democrat Assembly Members and the Kensington & Chelsea Liberal Democrats (grand total of councillors: 0). Even throwing in the Association of British Drivers and the Federation of Small Businesses, this isn’t looking like a great response.

And in case you were wondering just who would be paying for the huge cost of scrapping the scheme, take this paragraph from the TfL report:

the Mayor will need to consider how the loss of the substantial net revenues from the Western Extension could be offset in the TfL Business Plan and how such mitigation measures that need to be introduced can be funded.

You did have to wonder where the eight years of above-inflation public transport fare rises were going, since they weren’t going to be used for building any transport projects? Well, now we know. Oh, and London’ll miss its air quality targets again, buses in west London will travel slower and cycling in the area will become a fair amount less pleasant. But no more £8 charge to drive to Harrods. Good-oh.

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