From "Off the buses" to "All Aboard"- at least for the moment

(What conclusions can be drawn from the struggle against West York's Metro and the PFI partnerships of First Bus, Arriva etc?)


And we thought back in the late summer of 2009 we had scored such an easy victory. One letter to West Yorks Metro authority and the problem was solved. And how quickly we were to be disabused of that notion. Things were not to change until in April 2010 a standardised senior’s bus pass was introduced throughout England. In many respects, after out initial complaint to the top authority, things would gradually get worse, not better. Repeated abuse causes tempers to fray, particularly as the matter was so cut and dried. There were simply no grey areas open to pharisaic interpretation. We were simply being illegally stopped from travelling for free on West Yorks buses as was our right. We insisted on this over and over again but it made no difference. Thus we began to hatch all manner of conspiratorial explanations, even recalling that in Tudor times common land was enclosed with impunity, even encouraged, though the law expressly forbade it. And for all we know something of the sort may well have been occurring in West Yorks and that there were renegade, very right wing forces within the local and national state, that were surreptitiously conniving with the practise, and that were bent on getting rid of all ‘welfare’ subsidies even though they were themselves subsidised to the hilt like all the major transport privateers, whether train, coach or plane. Should there be a Wikifuel leaks, a disgruntled employee may yet spill the beans. Finally in August 2009 after numerous letters and persistent abuse, we snapped. An Arriva driver provocatively refused to accept out London passes despite being shown a letter from the overarching Metro authority that validated their legality. The ensuing confrontation in Dewsbury bus station came close to blows and one of us had to be dragged away. Though momentarily exhilarating, it was perhaps an unfortunate move, though the sheer recalcitrance of management (and unions) to do anything about the situation meant such an explosion was just waiting to happen. The official verdict delivered by a virtual kangaroo court in Arriva’s distant headquarters’ in Liverpool stated the fault was of our own making. The background to the incident, the remorseless build up of abuse now well over a year and half old was just ignored and when we raised the matter with Arriva’s paymaster, the metropolitan authority, we were told it was not within their jurisdiction to question the ruling. In this bizarre inversion of the employer / employee relationship, it was the tune that was calling the flush piper. And so we were given another severe warning, on top of an existing threatened anti social behaviour order if one of us dared show our face in Bradford Interchange again.

   In fact it merely hardened our resolve and we were determined to go down fighting. Exasperated, we decided to hand out a leaflet written in a spirited, tough-talking style to a meeting of the Pensioners’ Convention in Euston in London in October 2009 which had been called to discuss the future of the senior citizens pass. The leaflet was basically well received by many of the senior citizens present, some of whom could hardly believe what they were reading. Some even made belligerent suggestions. When told of how the police had been called on one occasion to remove us from a bus one said, “I would have shoved the copper of the bus”. Another agreed it was impossible to talk “to authority these days, I’m permanently barred from my Labour MP’s surgery”!!!!!! And that was about the best of it because it was no different from any well-attended TU branch meeting and indeed that’s exactly what it was as 99% were ex trade unionists. However we had expected the meeting to be like this so it came as no surprise. There was the usual TU contrast between the relatively combative mood of many (if not all) on the assembly floor and the platform of elected officials who, though nodding in manipulative sympathy with individuals who were kicking off, spend much of their time hobnobbing with government officials or TUC boss, Brendan ‘Demon’ Barber, dropping his name at regular intervals as though this was a guarantee of their efficacy  These officials know how to make the right noises but their real aim in the long run is to delay and quash action. They certainly never even attempted to stop us handing out the leaflet; rather they ignored it and just as surely weren’t going to raise the issue from the platform. True, a controlling, college-educated suit from the Dept of Transport came up when the meeting was closing for a ‘sympathetic’ chat but you knew it was all words and nothing more than patronising bullshit. Possibly suspecting the onset of premature Alzheimer’s, he even asked if we were using our passes before 9.30am, which by law we were forbidden to do. In a sense, even he found it hard to get his head around what was happening on the West Yorks buses, the situation was just so preposterous as to beggar belief. A former dinner ladies’ shop steward found him totally untrustworthy and scheming but of course didn’t say so to his face. But he was typical of the people TU bureaucrats spend their days hanging out with and become so like them they lose the inner freedom to be this frank, even in private. After a while it was obvious that most of the platform came from the white-collar and middle management sections of the TU apparatus and were in possession of masses of empirical data they could reel off but crucially lacking any fire in their bellies. And that was that.

  A little later the External Affairs Officer of the Bus Users Group emailed us claiming only the drivers could be at fault over this. We replied, “No it comes from higher up”, the inspectorate playing a particularly crucial role in disseminating false information. Conspiracy theories aside, the most innocuous thing that could be said is that, as a result of cost cutting measures, ignorance was ruling all round. We went on to say that drivers told us they never receive any instructions regarding changes like these and when we replied “that’s typical of management” they would nod their heads in enthusiastic agreement. We even found we had to ‘educate’ the inspectorate, two friendly inspectors in late 2009 asking us “what distinguishes the senior citizens bus pass”. Because we were travelling in “white rose” Yorkshire we jokingly pointed to “the red rose of Lancashire” symbol on the pass (also that of the English tourist board) and which caused laughter all round - which was a change because it hadn’t been a laughing matter at all, in fact extremely scary especially when youths asked drivers if they needed any help in chucking us off buses. Sooner or later some unhinged passenger, exasperated at the delays these incidents caused, was going to pull a knife. And on present reckoning, we would get the blame for offering up our bodies to be stabbed and damaging the knife! ----------------------- The External Affairs Officer never came back to us, would you Adam and Eve it?

    And so the nasty incidents continued and was only finally resolved with the issuing of a new bus pass in March 2010, metropolitan districts issuing passes that were a near facsimile of the standard national pass. There and then the trouble ended. If, in the first instance, a standard national pass had been issued, none of this would ever have happened.  To produce a myriad different passes was just asking for trouble and we can only wonder who was the wiseacre who dreamt up this cost cutting measure which was sure to fail - even a child could see that - and which in the long run would cost millions more nationally because of the ensuing hold ups in the transport networks. Did this inept piece of designer creativity result in a handsome payoff for some subcontracted company? And were obscene consultancy fees involved? In fact the new pass was not the hi-tech, smart card promised at the Pensioners Convention but a serviceable, dull old thing, drivers scarcely can be bothered to look at. And so the growing army of pensioners will just have to forgo the pleasures of techno-aestheticism, the eventual, state-of-the-art, bus pass merely one wafer of a universal smart card which will, in due course, upload them into the credit / leisure / service society in which choice (of smart Zimmer frame, bedpan, coffin-whatever) was to be sovereign. In fact today’s bit of common card, mug shot, and not much else beside belies the triumphalist ideology that enveloped its earlier arrival, despite the beginnings of the credit crises.

  But interesting developments were to follow, some of them quite pleasing. Almost instantly there was an about turn from staff at Bradford Interchange. Some inspectors (for we were now notorious) even began looking at us in almost an awed way, as if we were made of kryptonite. Though we were not supermen, we had kept up a relentless pressure month in, month out and clearly were not to be messed with. The drivers’ attitudes changed and, though wary, we felt we were being shown some kind of puzzled respect. What we had written must have got around and it was clear that on no occasion had we ever blamed the drivers and held them responsible, despite being subject to the most appalling provocation which, of course, we also found inexcusable. In fact we never once in all the leaflets, harangues, letters, and speeches to the Pensioners Convention etc cussed drivers out. We always made doubly sure that we clearly emphasised the gradual worsening of their conditions of employment (evident from the growing number of strikes) and the concomitant increase in personal stress, lending itself to handy scapegoats (e.g. ourselves or pensioners in general) or to an almost inevitable surly, uncooperative behaviour towards passengers (sorry “customers”) bordering on the rude and aggressive.

  We were only too glad to shake hands and move on. Inter-class aggro, even violent inter-class aggro is not uncommon in the hidden history of the workers’ movement. Inter class aggression can have appalling consequences like the refusal of Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire miners to support the rest of the striking miners during 1984-5. However in most cases hurdles can be overcome and solidarity restored. So let’s examine in more detail the 1972 dockers’ strike which quickly spread into a general wildcat involving other industrial and office workers. The strike began as an inter-sectional union dispute, the Tory government of the day judging it the right moment, on account of this inter class dispute, to arrest five shop stewards and incarcerate them in Pentonville prison, Once the law had been brought into the dispute, the two opposing docker battalions belonging to either registered or unregistered wharves immediately patched up their differences, the general wildcat strike that followed ensuring the arrested dockers were hardly in prison long enough to change into prison issue! On a different level there are signs a similar coming together is beginning to happen between estate gangs and a more general youth uprising, the function of FE colleges in fostering apprenticeships the more education is privatised and leased to companies, central to this development.

  We gained respect because of our unremitting, abrasive attacks on the central West Yorkshire Metro authority which never once provided the authority with one crumb of comfort. We showed the Metro authority up for what it is, a spineless, over-arching organisation that in reality has no teeth at all, and no power other than as a council tax raising authority and lacking any sense of responsibility not just as regards minor instances but also major outrageous ones. We showed that Public Private Partnerships, or PFIs  (Private Finance Initiatives, “public” deemed too base a word to merit inclusion and therefore increasingly dropped over time ) are not equal relationships and that, as time passed,  has become increasingly weighted toward a private sector that can do no wrong, its profits guaranteed from out of council taxes. First brokered by the Tory PM Major government from 1991-7 and then enthusiastically developed everywhere by Labour’s Blair & Brown, it has increasingly been viewed by liberal / left journalists as a financial racket engineered to offset market failure and guarantee dividend payments to share holders.

  We targeted transport managers in particular and whatever their gender we do not seek to hide the fact out purpose was to break then into bits, for this was a no holds barred fight. It was either them or us. We were simply out to make their jobs (and lives) a complete misery, such that they dreaded turning up for work each day. We judged they were simply place men and women and that, on account of their rank, the sustaining power of  solidarity was all but absent from their working lives – unlike amongst the multiracial, gender-neutral, bus drivers on the opposite side of the road. We also devilishly hoped that the distress we were hell bent on creating would overflow into the domestic sphere and exacerbate already existing tensions. Nothing would have given us greater satisfaction than to learn that our campaign had contributed to a marriage bust-up somewhere along the line. Middle management lives in perpetual fear of those below and especially above and given how the importance of PR grows in proportion to the loss of power by the local state, we knew the jobs of transport managers hung by a thread.  Were they to put a foot wrong and their words and actions held up to public redress, the chances of them hanging on to their miserable, time serving, shit career jobs was zilch. As it is, we do wonder how many Metro staff were giving a severe bollocking behind closed doors and were either moved sideways or demoted their prospect of advancement up the career hierarchy of local government at an end. However it is important to the maintenance of power that this is never made known, otherwise campaigns like ours could catch on and become all the rage!   

  Our campaign was a just one-off and of that there can be no doubt. And yet the stigma remains – and must do, for today more than ever, right is wrong, black, white and in the digital age 2+2=22. Thus Dick Cheney and others in State depts both here and in America, still insist, against all the evidence that hidden beneath a grain of sand in the Iraq desert there are masses of WMDs, primed for take off. For a start we lost our temper on several occasions and that is unforgivable, the notion of righteous anger, the prime target of the society of anger management. That we lost our rags condemns us for all eternity and, as we said in a letter, there is nothing more deserving of a reprimand than the Jews who hurled abuse at their captors as they were being herded into the gas chamber. No honour would ever accrue to our persons for having dared stand up to the injustice we, and others, endured for close on a year and a half. And that can have devastating psychological consequences, for there is a constant danger that the instigators of these individual David and Goliath campaigns begin to doubt themselves, cave in and end up shamefacedly agreeing with authority they are unstable troublemakers, guilty of violence, sexism and racism and urgently in need of therapy. Growing atomisation and the increased loss of a collective identity, only reinforces this. And in this one instance, power certainly knows what it’s doing.  

  Perhaps the major problem we came up against was getting others in a position to listen to believe this was actually happening. It was beyond comprehension and we would regularly quote Primo Levi to the effect what is morally impossible does not exist. It was so against the grain of the ‘humanist consensus’, we had to be making it up. Things like we were describing do not take place in modern Europe with its ‘concerned press’ and array of human rights legislation. In fact this consensus had been honed by end of history ideologies, a commitment to free market liberalism and an end to the  boom and bust cycle and was the perfect foil behind which  appalling ‘accidents’ could take place with relative impunity. And because the ‘caring society’ was a fact, and hence  not open to interrogation as it became ever more obviously ‘service’ and ‘user’ centred, it could also paradoxically be said to act as a facilitator. Belief in its proclaimed nostrums is powerfully present in the media classes.

  Interestingly, our original account published on the RAP web, really did make waves, climbing ever higher on Google listings when typing in West Yorks Metropolitan Authority. In fact, unbeknown to us, our ‘isolated’ protests were, it seems, merely the tip of the iceberg as complaints against Metro poured in, especially as regards arbitrary fare increases, rerouting of buses, even cancellation of routes with no regard to passengers and their workaday needs. The whole ramshackle outfit is on the brink of a collective nervous breakdown and for two nights in mid summer 2010, Metro hit the headlines of the Look North TV news. We only wish some abused employee would leak embarrassing internal information because that would provide user groups with badly needed ammo and that certainly would help in bringing the rotten edifice crashing to the ground. There is little doubt we are entering a period of struggle that is likely to embrace people formerly on the margins of previous struggles. Resistance to PFIs (the privatisation of the NHS by stealth immediately springs to mind) are just to say beginning, the presently disempowered consumers of services hopefully getting set to become the new multitudes of resistance and through direct action find their real power, the only power that counts. It would be nice to think that our unyielding and lone battle with Metro might prove to be a harbinger of this resistance…..


Bill & Ben: January 2011