As Le Tour begins Mark Perryman offers up a 5-point transitional programme for a cycling revolution
July, the month when (since 2012) first Wiggins, then Froome, last year Thomas turn Le Maillot Jaune into Le Maillot Britannique. Or in Thomas’ case Le Maillot Gallois. And off the back of this a surge in cycling, or not. According to the latest Department for Transport’s figures only 6% of the UK population cycle at least once a month, just 1% of primary school children cycle to school, a mere 3% of secondary school children, and compared to Europe we remain the third lowest of daily cyclists, at 4% only Cyprus (2%) and Malta (1%) get on their bikes less than the Brits.
Once again the myth perpetuated by politicians – including sometimes Labour ones, that elite success, Le Tour, Team GB’s hatful of gold medals in the Olympic Velodrome , the cycling world championships coming to Yorkshire in the autumn, is proved to have next to no impact on popular participation. Yet cycling not only helps generate a healthier population by getting us out of our cars (the same data revealed that the average length of a car journey is 8.5 miles) we can actively reduce urban air pollution, reduce reliance on fossil fuels and decarbonise the economy. All part and parcel of Labour’s Green New Deal. Elite sporting success doesn’t effect his kind of change, a left politics rooted in understanding that lifestyle choices and habits are socially constructed might. It was Trotsky who once offered up a ‘transitional programme’ , in his case from capitalism to socialism, mine is a tad more modest from four wheels, to two, although the consequences would be no less revolutionary than Leon’s.
- No VAT on Bikes
A signature move would be for Labour pledging to remove VAT on bicycles. A 20% reduction across the board on purchasing a bike isn’t to be sniffed at, and uses tax gathering as a tool to actively shape lifestyles. Something that will be required more and more by any Labour government seriously committed to a sustainable economic strategy.
- Socially Useful Bicycle Production
In the past few years there has been a spate of car factory closures. Each fought, but unsuccessfully by the unions. But this process is unlikely to slow down, it has little or nothing to do with Brexit rather consumer habits are changing. Sadly its not that car-drivers are driving less, its that they’re driving existing models for longer. The urgent need to upgrade every couple of years is coming to an end. And electricity is coming to replace the petrol in the tank. Good, but where does the electricity come from? If not renewables while air pollution may be reduced, the impact on climate change much less so (same applies to E-bikes). Labour should announce that when in government any such factories threatened with closure by their multinational owners will be taken over by the state. Used to churn out cheap but well-made bikes. Rather than front-wheel suspension, which is entirely unnecessary for the vast majority of journeys lightweight steel is what improves the quality of any ride. Focus on this for a line of nationalised, not-for profit children’s and adults’ bikes. Those centres of car manufacture are unlikely ever to recover, certainly not on the scale they once had, but what if they became new centres of bike manufacture?
- Bicycles on trains
Eight and a half miles isn’t a bad standard to aim at. Of course many car journeys are considerably less, there’s no need to aspire to Le Tour standards straightaway. Most of us, depending on any hills getting in the way, could do those 8.5 miles in a good bit under an hour. In big cities that will be quicker than by bus, and no wait for the next train either. But for some the journey to work is considerably longer. Why then does commuting by train actively discriminate against those who’d take a bike to complete the journey? The only ones permitted the expensive ‘2nd bike’ option, the fold-away. And at the weekends its no better, a ride in the country for city-dwellers made all the more difficult because the train ride to get there has next to no space for bikes. None of this applies on the continent where it is not uncommon to find entire carriages given over to cyclists and their bikes. What new train design in the UK has even begun to address this? The answer is the total opposite with ever-decreasing provision for carrying bikes. A campaign by the rail unions and cyclists together to change this would help forge an innovative and important alliance, putting more people on the trains and take more cars off the roads.
- A bike shed for every workplace
OK, 8.5 miles is going to leave most of us a tad sweaty. If of the all-weather cycling variety quite possibly soaking wet and caked in mud too. No way to start the working day. Every workplace needs to be kitted out with a bike shed, changing room, showers. A Labour government could set the example in their offices by building these straightaway, in local government why wait Labour councils could do it now but tokenism isn’t enough. Labour should commit to instilling this in planning regulations for any new workplace builds when it is government, making interest-free state grants for all existing workplaces to add this provision.
- The cyclists’ road to socialism
In the early years of socialism ‘Clarion Clubs’ of socialist cyclists would take body, soul and the message for change from city to countryside. A late 1980s version was the annual Oxford to London Nicaragua Solidarity bike ride that thousands would take part in every year. Despite the supposed frailty of Jeremy Corbyn being challenged by pictures of his regular Islington to Westminster, 4.5 miles according to my road map, cycle-commute it is a culture largely absent from the Left nowadays. Yet mass cycling has the potential to provide the means and confidence to generate the day-to-day ride as a matter of course. Such events are hugely popular, organised by commercial outfits for the major charities. But as a day out, entirely disconnected to any ambition to transform the way we live our lives and consume the world’s ever-decreasing resources. A Labour cycling culture, twinning urban CLPs with rural ones for a ride, rides across and around counties and regions linking CLPs together could help generate an entirely different way to network the party. Producing what the writer Lynne Segal has described as moments of ‘collective joy’ a day out yes, but with a world, not just a wheel, to change too.
I could add of course safer cycle ways and paths. This is traditionally the sum total of Labour’s thoughts on cycling, both are certainly needed, fear of unsafe roads remains a major impediment to the revolutionary growth in cycling to our individual and collective benefit I am advocating. Yet the overwhelming emphasis on this, to little or no substantial change, serves only to produce a self-fulfilling prophecy. If it’s that dangerous, which it isn’t, and nothing is being done about it, which it hasn’t, why bother? Like any decent manifesto for a revolution mine instead is the advocacy therefore of hope, not despair.
Liberté? Yes. Egalité? Of course. Velocité? Why not. Driven not by profit or an economic system driving our planet to destruction but by ourselves. A Révolution in anybody’s language.
Mark Perryman is co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction, aka Philosophy Football. Out just in time for Le Tour, their Liberté, Egalité, Velocité T-shirt is available from here