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Friday, June 10, 2005


Redistribution, New Labour-style

A letter to the Guardian on Monday 6th June asked:

“Why set up a complicated system for charging motorists by the distance they travel, when all that is needed is a ban on diesel cars and more petrol tax?”

The answer, of course, is that petrol tax could be used to achieve the same ends as satellite surveillance. That is, if the end sought is the market-based disincentive to behaviour that causes traffic congestion (and pollution). Plainly, as the government seems to be willing to spend billions on this project, where an increase in petrol tax would cost nothing and could be introduced in a very short space of time, the government has other ends in mind. Either that, or they are very stupid, and have been taken in by silver-tongued IT salesmen. And that is the point. This proposal is very like the government’s Identification Cards obsession. It will be a piece in the foundations of an authoritarian surveillance state. But that is not the end that the government is seeking. The end sought, having ruled out stupidity and dreams of a Stasi, is the transfer of billions of pounds of public wealth to a tiny number of IT contractors.

And this is New Labour policy across the board. Where the Tories transferred concrete public assets such as power stations and trains into the hands of a tiny number of people for a knock down price, New Labour transfers liquid public assets to an already wealthy elite. This is the rationale behind PPP, PFI, Identification Cards (and a whole host of wasteful – and privately provided – IT schemes) and now the surveillance on charging of road use. In the case of Academy Schools, the privatisation is of an even greater degree – the private ‘sponsor’, can, for next to no money, acquire a publicly funded school to run as he, she or they see fit.

New Labour cares deeply about the redistribution of wealth and power.

Pay per mile has one obvious advantage over increasing fuel tax if the motivation is to curb congestion. Raising fuel tax encourages drivers to limit the number of miles they drive. It is not area-specific in that it cannot be used to discourage driving in particularly congested areas.
A more charitable interpretation would include not only the point that fuel tax is a rather blunt instrument for reducing congestion - rather than use of fuel - but that the government, in the aftermath of the fuel protests whenever it was, probably doesn't feel it has the political capital to force through rises in fuel tax. You might disagree with this as a factual claim, but it is, I think, at least part of the best explanation of their behaviour that they believe it's the case.
Just stagger the working day so people go to work at different times. Hey presto, clear roads. Flexi is the future.
Just a response to the suggestion that flexi-time is the future: well it was, 25 years ago.

It still seems crazy to me that everyone still travels to work at the same time. It's called path dependency. The only ones who could opt out are those of whose working hours don't need to instersect with those of others. Those of us who process data, maintain archives, manufacture goods or work outdoors, for example. If you work in a shop, or in an office that has to react to work done in other offices during the working day, then you're a bit stuck.
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