Free transport in London

One of the more obvious examples of the waste of capitalism is the common practice of making people buy a ticket before they can travel. Under this absurd procedure men and women are employed to issue pieces of paper for other men and women to punch holes in. People who cannot afford to pay for these tickets cannot use the buses and trains, while those caught travelling without one are liable to be brought before the magistrates and fined.

In a socialist society on the basis of common ownership travel, like everything else, would be free. Buses and trains would be provided for people to use as and when they wanted to.

Faced with this common-sense proposition many people are at a loss and can think of no sensible objection. They often do not know that even under capitalism public transport is provided as a free service in some places. Such people must have been thoroughly confused during the recent Greater London Council elections. For here there were Tories and Liberals, Labour and Homes Before Roads candidates, all saying that the GLC should run London Transport as a free service.

For instance, the “Homes Before Roads” group who stood in most boroughs declared:

“We believe that within the next ten years we will have to consider the idea of free public transport as a feasible solution to the congestion and pollution caused by the private motorist.”

But it was not only amongst the minority party candidates that this was canvassed. In Islington, the idea had an able advocate in Councillor John Szemerey, a Tory. He wrote:

“It is six years since I first proposed to Conservative Central Office that public transport in London should be provided free as a public service, financed jointly from the Exchequer and from the rates. With all the resultant savings on manpower and machinery, increased mobility of labour and utilisation of public transport, and reduction in travel by private car, I still think there is a good case for this.” (North London Press, 6 February).

When asked how much it would cost to provide free public transport in London the Tory GLC leader replied that “the abolition of fares on London Transport’s red buses and Underground trains would be equivalent to a rate of 3s. 4d. in 1970, or approximately £30 a year for the average householder” (North London Press, 6 March).

Szemerey’s Labour opponents in Islington were delighted. They challenged him to say he stood for “a 3s. 4d. a rate increase to make travel free on all the London Transport buses and Underground trains”, an obvious appeal to what they thought were popular prejudices against the idea. In Camden, incidentally, the same challenge was made to the Liberals by a Tory — a revealing illustration of the sham that conventional party politics is.

Szemerey replied, arguing in effect that even from a capitalist standpoint his proposal could be justified:

“My point was that the savings from having no tickets (savings in manpower, materials and machines) put together with the savings on road maintenance and improvements (many more would use free public transport and leave their cars at home) might well justify a totally new look at public transport policy and treating it as a public service paid from local and national taxation (rates and Exchequer).
The statement by the leader of the GLC that free red buses and undergrounds in London would cost a 3s. 4d. rate or some £30 per year for the average householder, if paid entirely from the rates underlines my point. The balance of payments from rates and Exchequer still needs to be worked out, but even if paid entirely from the rates £30 a year per household would present an actual saving for most families . . . And for the old, who nowadays have to think twice before spending 6d. on a bas fare, it would open a new life. They could visit friends, go to the shops, make outings to museums or parks all at no direct cost to themselves” (Islington Gazette, 20 March).

Because abolishing tickets was proposed by a conventional politician it got this serious hearing. Nobody suggested that, with free access to transport, there would not be enough seats for everyone. Or that the buses and trains would be jammed full of people travelling nowhere in particular just because it was free.

Free travel on London Transport has nothing to do with Socialism, as the fact that it finds such a keen advocate in a Tory shows. It would merely be another reform which, with class ownership and the wages system continuing, would exert a downward pressure on wage levels.

It is the implications of some of Councillor Szemerey’s arguments that are of particular interest. He argues that resources would be saved since there would no longer be any need for tickets, ticket machines, ticket collectors or accounts, and that people who now cannot afford to travel too often will have this restriction on their enjoyment of life removed.

But these arguments can be applied with equal validity outside transport. Think of the saving if other things like food and clothes and housing were to be provided free. There would be no need for any cashiers or accountants or bank clerks or security guards or rent collectors or salesmen. The list is almost endless since very many people are employed in jobs which have to do with the buying and selling rather than the actual production of wealth. There would be no need either for cash registers, safes, counting machines or sales ledgers. The saving would be enormous and could go some way towards providing the extra things that people would ask for if prices were abolished.

What an indictment of capitalism it is that there are old people who, as Councillor Szemcrey admits, “have to think twice before spending 6d. on a bus fare”. These same people also have to think twice before spending money on the food and clothes they buy and on the rooms they rent. The abolition of price-tags really would open up “a new life” for them.

Of course free access to wealth according to need is not possible as long as a privileged few own the means of production. It would first require a real social revolution changing the basis of society from class to common ownership, as opposed to the comparatively trivial reform Councillor Szemcrey proposes. It is up to him to explain why his proposal to abolish prices is restricted to transport. He must say why he wants to go on wasting society’s resources on the trappings of buying-and-selling and why he still wants to force old people to pay for the food and shelter they need.


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