Announcing policies or making pledges a long way in advance of an election has always been a double-edged sword. Although it gives candidates longer to make their point and capitalise on any subsequent support, it also gives their opponents extra time to highlight contradictions and pick holes in their plans. So Ken Livingstone is finding with his pledge to cut fares.
Livingstone’s first pledge (a 5% cut in fares) lasted just over two months before, it seems, he saw last week’s opinion poll (which gave Boris an 8% lead) and decided to ramp up his offer. He now claims that he would reduce fares by 7%. If ever proof were needed that he is plucking arbitrary figures from thin air, and that affordability is no issue, this change of policy is surely it. Indeed, given his apparent propensity to casually improve his offer whenever the polls are going against him, one wonders what he’ll be pledging by polling day. An end to fares, and a free puppy for all?
This new pledge is clearly unfunded, clearly unaffordable and clearly a deceit. Ken claims that he would fund the cuts from reserves, yet TFL have already explained that all reserves are accounted for. As such, there are three possible scenarios in a hypothetical new Livingstone mayoralty. Scenario one is that he scraps his pledge the minute he’s elected. Given his track record of saying one thing before elections and doing something completely different after (remember the video?), this can’t be ruled out. Scenario two is that he affords his pledge by cutting services (goodbye to night buses and more) and reducing transport investment (hello to far more breakdowns, delays and suspensions). Scenario three is that he runs a colossal deficit (he could ask his mate Ed Balls for some tips).
Indeed, the third scenario isn’t just my fear but Ken’s too. In October he told MayorWatch:
“It’s very tempting to say ‘Boris has put fares up by 7%, I’ll cut them 7% in October’ but we’re saying 5% because when we plough through the budget and if we’d gone for 7% we might have found in that final year there would be a deficit and I’m not prepared to take that risk.”
It appears he is now prepared to take that risk, given the zero impact that the 5% pledge had on the polls. What’s more, by mentioning that he doesn’t know what’s in the budget, he reminds us that he hasn’t a clue how he’ll fund any cut at all. This isn’t the only contradiction: just twelve days ago, he told a rally in Camden:
“I wish it [the 5% cut] could be more. But unlike the Tories, we will not say anything we can’t deliver.”
Even by his standards, twelve days is a remarkably short space of time in which to contradict himself and increase a spending commitment by 40%. If even he acknowledges that such a cut is undeliverable, he surely can’t expect Londoners to trust him to make it happen?
As a final point, the irony is not lost on me that Ken made his new pledge today surrounded by a bunch of Santas [above]. Father Christmas is of course a preposterous and fanciful character, typically only believed until we’re bright enough to see through the pretence…