Wednesday 30 August 2023

ULEZ and its Discontents

Tuesday saw the rolling out of the Ultra Low Emission Zone to all the boroughs of Greater London. Inherited from Boris Johnson and, once upon a time, encouraged by Grant Shapps before deciding being against ULEZ was good for Tory prospects, it's fair to say Sadiq Khan has fully embraced the policy. He toured the breakfast show studios talking up the improvements to London's air quality, and how it was saving lives. The scheme, which came into force at midnight, is operating with no grace period. Those entering the ULEZ without emissions compliant vehicles and a £12.50 daily pass can look forward to immediate fines of £180. Estimating that around 90% of cars in the outer boroughs already sit below the threshold, a scrappage scheme is available in which grants of up to £2,000 can be claimed towards a new car.

Leaving aside the character of the policy and its implementation, there was one interesting aspect to BBC regional news coverage of the roll out. It continually emphasised the "strong opposition" to it. One on the spot report highlighted anti-ULEZ graffiti, while another mentioned how a camera had been vandalised with white paint. Naturally, right wing media have chosen to talk this up. A couple of hundred (if that) marching on Downing Street with a No 2 ULEZ coffin and claiming toxic air "is a lie" was prominently featured on the Telegraph's website. It says "some parts of London [are] seeing every one of their Ulez cameras vandalised on the day of the expansion". The Sun likewise reports that "dozens of cameras" were vandalised, and claims some drivers had taped up their number plates to evade detection. Farage is banging on about this "tax on working people", and LBC went on the Underground and - to no one's surprise - found air down there was poor quality. Then we had the road blockages by anti-ULEZ protestors last week which, funnily enough, did not merit a scintilla of condemnation from the outlets who treat every Just Stop Oil action as if the Paris Commune was marching on Versailles. And no doubt hoping some of that anti-ULEZ love will improve his chances at the next election, The Mail reports how Iain Duncan Smith is backing efforts to destroy Transport for London's shiny new cameras. You read that correctly. The party of law and order is encouraging criminal damage.

Some of the arguments opposition to ULEZ field miss the mark. It's a nefarious scheme for Khan to raise more money for woke projects, which falls apart considering how thousands have already applied for the scrappage scheme and the mayor's office are encouraging people to do this to avoid the tickets and the fines. Or it's open season on the motorist to force the hellscape of 15 minute cities onto us and take away the freedom to drive wherever you please. Very quickly, the arguments abandon the sensible grounds of affordability and its being a regressive tax and jump headlong into the completely conspiratorial. This is because ULEZ, like pretty much all policies with universal scope strikes terror into the hearts of a particular constituency: the petit bourgeoisie.

In Dan Evans's recent discussion about his book on the same, he talks about how the petit bourgeoisie are the most excitable and dangerous of classes. As sole traders, or owners of small or medium sized businesses their status feels as if it rests entirely on their shoulders. If they take a day off sick, that's a day without income. Holiday pay does not exist. And they are at the mercies of forces much larger than them. The movement of a large retailer into their district can wipe them out. New government regulations means added costs, which can wipe them out. Employees getting together into a union and pressing for higher wages or taking industrial action can wipe them out. Disruption of the every day, from the weather to public services not working properly to third party strikes can wipe them out. Being one's own boss is life affirming and validates one's individuality, even though the reality of the situation more often than not finds this pluckiest of underdogs treading water and hoping a wave doesn't come along that drowns them.

A couple of important political consequences flow from occupying this location. Self-reliance is dependent on making the right choices, which means as far as they are concerned there is no higher authority than themselves. Not so much I think therefore I am, more I think therefore it must be true. This explains the over-preponderance of the petit bourgeois in anti-vax/Covid denial movements and other collective outbursts of the seemingly irrational. The second is that the angst undergirding their position predisposes them to a politics of certainty, which explains a tendency to cultural nostalgia and disproportionate enthusiasm for right wing authoritarian politics. One cannot understand why this class went for Leave over Remain in the EU referendum without understanding this point, and how they have consistently been more attracted to the Tories than Labour. Even when the latter have differed not at all on authoritarian statism.

Looking at mobilisations of the petit bourgeoisie in the 21st century, there is a certain commonality to them. Whether it was the petrol protests in 2000 or the Countryside Alliance demonstrations a year later, the Fathers 4 Justice stunts, and latterly the cocktail of Covid conspiracism, 15 minute cities, and now ULEZ what they all have in common is the perception the state, or rather a busybody and overly managerial section of the state is getting in the way, professing to know better than them, and is stopping them from doing as they please. ULEZ, as the flagship policy of a technocratic and robot-sounding Labour mayoralty was always bound to antagonise a layer of them. Particularly those whose opposition to Sadiq Khan has more than a racist tinge, and have happily drunk from the toxic brew of Islamophobia that is swilling around the London Tory party. With encouragement from leading Tories, and indeed anti-ULEZ (predictably) now forming a key plank of government strategy since retaining Johnson's old seat, if anything opposition to it will grow with more daft demonstrations and attacks on TfL cameras. It is seen and felt as an irksome burden, and is treated as such.

There's a warning here for Labour. Keir Starmer in office will be a red rag to the petit bourgeois bull. The arrogant we-know-best vibes given off by the shadow front bench, the deeply inauthentic media appearances, a politics of authoritarian modernisation that aims at perfecting the state, and the prospect of more regulation as local authorities are empowered offer plenty of real and imagined grievances for petit bourgeois oppositionism to take up. Which is all the more likely given how the Tories will be down for the count and unlikely to make a comeback any time soon. Considering how the Labour right would rather turn to administrative means and dirty tricks than rely on political argument, petit bourgeois provocations are likely to elicit even more authoritarian responses. And who knows where they might go in reply?

Image Credit


Zoltan Jorovic said...

On R4 today, Lawrie Taylor interviewed Dan Evans and he pointed out that the huge growth in the petit bourgeoisie since 2008 has been in self-employed, sole traders. The majority of the PB do not employ anyone. So, they mostly work alone. You can see that having a group to join is both attractive, and probably necessary for them. So, this adds to the appeal of these various protest movements. Some of it may be as much about socialising and finding someone to share concerns with as it is about the supposed issue the group opposes.

Blissex said...

«and take away the freedom to drive wherever you please»

In the 1970s there was this super-important study by a right wing think-tank that showed that people who owned a car, some shares, a house voted more often for right wing parties than those who did not *at the same level of income and status*.

So the Conservatives, LibDems, New Labour have been undermining public transport, defined benefit pensions (and annuities), rented housing, and pushing hard for car ownership, share pension accounts, property prices.

But while car ownership matters to the middle class and the petty bourgeoisie, as a status symbol mostly, and some petty bourgeois and middle class people have a few hundred thousand in a share account, by far and away what matters to them is their property.
The petty bourgeois and especially the middle class very much rely on property profits to boost their affluent living standards, and as long as they get their yearly redistribution from those poorer than themselves via booming rents and prices, they will keep voting for as government that delivers what they really want.

From at least 2001 onwards the New Labour governments were widely despised, and New Labour lost millions of voters, but still won more seats than the opposition because middle class and petty bourgeois voters could not bring themselves to vote for the Conservatives as they were flush with property profits and still remembered the Conservatives making their properties sink into negative equity in the 1990s crash.

The turnout of Conservative voters depends on how satisfied they are with their property based redistribution, and only very much secondarily on ULEZ, arrogance, managerial mandarinism, etc. etc. etc. as the experiences of Hague, IDS, Howard showed in the 2000s.

Graham W said...

Names matter.

ULEZ should really be called the clean air zone.

LTNs should really be called residential traffic areas.

The Tories will contine to look for things they can turn against Labour and this month its ELEZ/LTN. If Labour don't respond and reframe the argument then the Tories will win that argument.

Sadly Labour is not willing to stand up for clean air and quiet residential roads.
On one level this is a trivial issue but on another its and indication that the next Labour govenment will do nothing in the face of the evolving climate crisis.

A key problem is the widespread assumption that fighting global heating is somehow going to be cost free. Part of the attraction on the Green New Deal is the belief that it will pay for itself.

Dealing with climate change is going to cost billions and as the Stern Review highlighted 17 years ago every year of inaction increases the cost.

The question is who is going pay the cost and the answer is a matter of class. As the Labour Party has given up on class politics its not suprising that they hide from the petit bourgeoise in case they loose some votes rather than defend the poor who suffer the worst consequences of poor air quality and will suffer the worst effects of climte change.

Blissex said...

«Dan Evans and he pointed out that the huge growth in the petit bourgeoisie since 2008 has been in self-employed, sole traders. The majority of the PB do not employ anyone. So, they mostly work alone»

Most of those are not "petty bourgeoisie": the Job Centres are well known for pushing hard the unemployed towards "self employment" as that reduces the official unemployment figures and reduce the workload on Job Centres, as their managers get bonuses if they can reduce staff. There are some incentives to sweeten the deals for the unemployed.
“ I was signing on at the end of the nineties and the Dole office Lady suggested I should become self employed. She guessed I was working as well. I was. The Lady had the form ready and filled it in. Instantly my dole money converted, the same amount, and I got WTC. Housing Benefit was not affected either. Yearly I did an assessment online which is fool proof for those declaring below £25,000 a year. I was migrated, their term, from unemployment to the employed. No lawyers, no accountants, no nothing. Just about everyone I knew then was on the same deal. Taxi drivers, builders, hair dressers, stall holders, labourers..... the lot. I am willing to bet nothing has changed since there are now twelve million people on WTC or its replacement Universal Credit. No one will pull the pin on the fiddle because if they do the potential increase in those back signing on is twelve million.”
“Worker's rights have been massively eroded already, nothing to do with the EU Referendum result. We've been in the gig economy for years. And the DWP have created a new category of person, the self-unemployed. People unemployed and on benefits were encouraged to go 'self employed' only to find their 'business' failed.”

Tom R said...

To this accurate analysis, Phil, I'd add that small-business types are not only conservative in a left-right sense, but conservative in the "not open to new experiences" way, personality-wise. The two of course do not overlap completely. (Eg, had these types been born in the USSR before 1960 they would be decrying the introduction of Coca-Cola and McDonalds).
What this means is that when someone of this mindset thinks of "reasonable limits on liberty," they picture those they have grown up with, are familiar with, and have learned to work their lives around.
Facing the introduction of novel restrictions in their middle age, they experience a deep who-moved-my-cheese angst and sense of dislocation. Were they to process this calmly and own it honestly, we might feel some sympathy for them. (And we're all a bit like this. Public servants and academics who talk about society's need for root-and-branch change will object loudly when their Minister or Vice-Chancellor wants them to adopt new software. Hell, I'd be prepared to accept that Hungarian is a clearer and more logical language than English, but I still don't want my government to change the official language now… But, that said, the grumbling academics don't express their discontent by smashing traffic cameras)
Yet they are entirely relaxed about long-established, centuries-old restrictions on freedom that are now "part of the furniture'. Hence the jarring dissonance of American right-wingers whining about compulsory seat-belts while explaining that aksherly slavery wasn’t that bad for The Negro, and yearning nostalgically for the days of imprisoning gay men. George Wallace complaining that desegregation represented "federal tyranny," etc). This despite the fact that no sane observer would rate seat-belt laws as worse than anti-sodomy laws on any objective comparison.
Right-wingers of this mindset are especially relaxed about centuries-old restrictions on other people's freedom, but they do also get used to restrictions on their own (eg, the absolute right of their employers to sack and dictate to them; and dare I add in the fawning over "King Charles"?)
Seen in this light, it is no surprise that these types vehemently reject measures to deal with climate change. Global warming has only been in the public consciousness for three decades. Dial that up to 11 with COVID. Something you can't see, and suddenly I have to wear a mask:? No wonder Peter Hitchens reverted to his oh-woe-is-me-to-live-in-such-degenerate times when he couldn't nip down to his local for a pint as he had done for decades.
(This explains the 2011 AV referendum, too. Once it was pointed out that Alterative Vote might, under certain circumstances, not elect the same candidate that first-past-the-post would, it was doomed. Well, like, stands to reason, right…?)
The good side, sort of, is that if necessary regulations survive attempts at repeal, they get worked in to the conservative mindset and cease to be obstacles. Compulsory seat-belts and random breath-testing were deeply resented four decades ago (anecdotes about "the bloke who got trapped by his seat belt and couldn't escape before his petrol tank exploded" were the disco-era precursor to "the Danish Study proved that masks don't work"). I'm told – although thankfully I just missed this era myself – that before the 1970s "real men" didn't wear deodorant: they just didn't.

Aimit Palemglad said...

"What you have to understand, Phil, is that all your complex sociological theorising is a waste of time. Those clever philosophers and political scientists and sociologists that wrote all those long unreadable books, mostly in French, were missing the obvious. Its's all about house ownership. Own a house? Vote Tory. Don't own a house? Vote for someone else. Unless you really, really want to own a house, in which case you might vote Tory."
"So, @Bliss, you are saying that people's multiplicity of interests and the whole complex dynamic of their social environment is irrelevant and we can skip all that and just check if they are property owners or not, then everything becomes entirely predictable?"
"Finally, Phil! You do seem slow on the uptake as I been telling you this since you started this blog".
Phil turns away muttering "why do I bother...pearls before swine..."

Phil said...

Voting Tory has something to do with home ownership? Wow. Someone should write a book about it.

Anonymous said...

Pondering this further, it’s likely that “these types will tolerate quite onerous restrictions provided they’re long-established, but will chuck hissy fits about much milder restrictions that are ‘new-fangled’” links in with Phil’s point about how the Poujadista acknowledges no authority higher than himself. That is, he looks around him today and sees flawed, fallible human beings (especially Labour Ministers). How dare these pygmies tell him what to do?! But the great giants of the past - the mythic figures who bequeathed us Magna Carta and the Common Law, back in the mists of the past - their like is not to be found today. We must hold on to the rules they laid down, and never replace them with complex regulations cooked up by the EU and other Cartesian rationalists…
In the USA, this attitude translates into near-idolatrous veneration for The Founders by tricorne-wearing cosplayers who would be aghast to hear Jefferson’s views on the Christian Bible stated frankly. Who quote “proclaim Liberty unto the Land, and the Inhabitants thereof” as a low-tax slogan, unaware that its original context was debt relief of the sort they hate Biden for enacting.
The American neo-Burkeans are especially funny when they start spluttering about the metric system, because they do this in Webster’s reformed-spelling English and probably after counting their tax bills in dollar amounts that are most definitely decimal.