Labour unveiled its bus policy with much fanfare – but it is generally a rehash of what is already in place or promised, believes our politics expert
The Labour transport spokesperson, Louise Haigh, recently announced the party’s plans for the bus industry in England should it win the next election.
Nothing surprising, with Labour simply proposing to allow all local transport authorities (LTAs) to introduce franchising without the need for approval from the Department for Transport (currently only LTAs with elected Mayors can introduce franchising without approval), simplifying processes for introducing franchising, and ending the ban on creating new municipal bus companies.
Inevitably, Ms Haigh heralded these proposals as the biggest reforms for the industry in 40 years. They are nothing of the sort, of course, given that the concept of franchising has been around for some time and was actually introduced by the Conservatives anyway.
‘Tinkering’ with policies
The proposals amount to little more than tinkering with existing policies. And since the Conservatives appear to have embraced the idea of franchising, it is perfectly possible, if not probable, that any non-Mayoral LTA wanting to introduce it would have been given the green light anyway.
The Conservatives’ National Bus Strategy for England also undertook to look again at the ban on creating new municipal companies, although admittedly, nothing further has been said on this since the Strategy was published in 2021.
Whether Labour’s proposals really make any difference, or whether we suddenly see a flood of franchising proposals being taken forward, remains to be seen. I am not convinced we will.
Yes, some combined authorities with greater expertise, and a good deal more money, may well proceed more quickly than might otherwise have been the case, and a number of LTAs are already looking at franchising in any event. So Labour’s bus policies are neither surprising nor wildly different to what we already have.
The real question is this: Will Labour provide greater levels of funding for LTAs to enable them to proceed with franchising?
Franchising is neither cheap nor risk-free, not least because franchising authorities will have to take revenue risk. And heaven knows how much the Greater Manchester Combined Authority has spent on developing its franchise proposals.
Unless Labour explains its position on funding and whether it will provide LTAs with a great deal of extra money, I remain sceptical whether its proposals for the bus industry will really make much difference compared to what we have today.
Will Labour win?
Based on the recent local election results in England, will Labour form the next government and be able to put its bus policies into practice?
There is no doubt that the results were truly terrible for the Conservatives, losing over 1,000 councillors and control of 48 councils. This is worse than the party’s most pessimistic forecasts. But Sir Keir Starmer should not be popping the champagne corks just yet.
Labour performed well, but not well enough to be certain of an outright parliamentary majority, and it is worth remembering that, in the year before an election, governing parties tend to improve their positions in what is known as “electoral tightening”. Indeed, Labour’s share of the votes cast remained static relative to local elections last year, which suggests that the electorate has yet to be persuaded by Mr Starmer’s offering.
Lib Dems prominent
For my money, the real winners from these elections were the Liberal Democrats, which gained over 400 councillors and took control of an additional 12 councils. The Lib Dems performed strongly in the south of England. That will be a real worry to many Conservative MPs, including a handful of Cabinet ministers.
On the surface, therefore, a Labour/Lib Dem coalition looks the most plausible outcome of the next general election. But that could be a poisoned chalice for Mr Starmer, as he may find himself having to deal with various parties, and factions within Labour, for support.
Indeed, he may face the nightmare of the hard left faction in his own party having sufficient parliamentary representation to make its own demands to keep Labour in power.
In that circumstance, he may be better off following Harold Wilson’s example from 1974. The then-Labour leader sought to run a minority government after the February 1974 general election, then went to the country in October of that year to seek an overall majority – which he achieved, just. History may repeat itself.
Based on the local election results, Mr Starmer’s best option might be to seek an informal pact with the Lib Dems so that whichever party has the best chance of defeating an incumbent Conservative MP is effectively given a clear run.
There was some evidence of informal agreements on these lines in the local elections. In Bracknell Forest, the Conservatives secured 46% of votes cast, more than double the votes for Labour or the Lib Dems, but lost 27 seats. Labour gained 18 seats to take control of the council. The Lib Dems gained six seats. Mind you, the turnout was alarmingly low at just 28%.
This example shows that agreements between opposition parties to oust incumbent MPs or councillors can have a major impact. If Labour and the Lib Dems formed some kind of informal pact – no matter how much they may hate doing so or deny that such an agreement existed – the Conservatives would be smashed out of the park.
But there is some good news for the Conservatives among the ashes of their performance on 4 May. Some evidence exists that there was a large ‘stay at home’ protest among normally loyal Conservative voters rather than any major switch to Labour. And of course, turnout at local elections is always much lower than general elections. And mid-term protest votes are not uncommon.
Crumbs of comfort, perhaps, but the swing against the Conservatives was “only” 4%. That said, if I was a Conservative strategist, it is the Lib Dems that I would be nervous of given the party’s performance in the south of England, not Labour. A Lib Dem alliance with Labour is the stuff of nightmares for Conservative HQ.