17 December 2014

Britain was built by private enterprise – so why is ‘privatisation’ so unpopular?

Lately there’s been a lot of talk about the ‘P’ word: privatisation. Ed Miliband’s team hasn’t done the hard policy work to revitalise Labour as a party of government, and it is beginning to show. His platform for next May has a lot of sticky plaster policies, but very little that addresses structural problems like the housing market and transport costs, to name two issues close to my heart. Instead, catnip like ‘no privatisation of our NHS’ and ‘reversing the privatisation of the railways’ is being wheeled out to fill the Left’s policy void.

This conveniently ignores the Blair and Brown government’s enthusiasm for market – rather than state – solutions. Some people know about Hinchingbrooke, the NHS hospital so ineptly run by the state that Andy Burnham ‘privatised’ it when he was Secretary of State. Fewer know that Circle – the private sector company that took control of Hinchingbrooke along with a 50 per cent staff mutual – has done a decent job of turning around something that was – if you’ll excuse the pun – a real hospital pass.*

Just why is privatisation seen as so politically toxic, when much of what we love in Britain has been shaped by private enterprise? Take tertiary education, where students attend the privately run institution of their choice. Our universities have always been ‘privatised’, with the model of academics and faculties competing for research funding well established. Yet the idea of such a system for our primary and secondary schools would currently be politically unacceptable, even though universities like Cambridge and UCL are world beaters – just look at the latest QS rankings, where four out of the world’s top six institutions are British.

And that’s the whole point of privatisation: creating a market where competition drives improvements in quality and efficiencies in price. Try telling that to the British public, who overwhelmingly want to see the railways renationalised – including a majority of Conservative voters. People dislike their trains being run by foreign state operators, but isn’t the point of the railways to move people around, rather than be some sort of national bauble?

Competition has been fantastic for train passengers in the post-British Rail era. This is hardly surprising given that the great triumphs of Britain’s railways were the product of healthy rivalries between private companies – from the Rainhill Trials through to the speed wars in the 1930s that resulted in Mallard, the world’s fastest locomotive. Our railway infrastructure was delivered by companies not wanting to miss out on market share, but today the government is desperately playing catchup after decades of neglect under state ownership – and building HS2 at a pace that would have appalled our Victorian ancestors.

The 2015 General Election campaign is already well underway, and perhaps you’ll hear someone talking about the evils of privatisation in a queue at the Post Office, only to realise that you’ve never had to endure a 40 minute wait at Sainsbury’s or Tesco. That’s because the supermarkets are in competition, and if they made their customers wait that long they know they’d be out of business. They’re also fairly good at keeping down costs for their users – something that we desperately need in our NHS if the principle of free healthcare for all is to survive the challenges of an ageing population and increasing treatment costs. So that’s the sort of privatisation we should be talking about: driving up quality of service, bringing down costs – and no lengthy waits before the automated voice directs you to ‘Till Number Three’.

First published by Coffee House on December 17th, 2014

* About two weeks after this was published Circle announced that it was handing back its operation of Hinchingbrooke to the state. Writing in the Guardian, former Labour MP Tom Levitt said that 'the failure of Circle at Hinchingbrooke hospital, in Huntingdon, where the company very nearly managed to remove an operating loss inherited from the public sector, was due to the failure of the NHS to deliver its side of the bargain, not least the over-demand on A&E which was well above what the company was told to expect.'

8 December 2014

David Cameron and the Pope as bosom eurobuddies? I didn’t see that one coming.

Did you miss the big speech on Europe? Fresh from pushing his followers towards a more liberal line on gay rights, it was David Cam – actually it was Pope Francis who made the most telling intervention on the future of the EU, warning MEPs in Strasbourg that the European project was ‘no longer fertile and vibrant’ and ‘slowly losing its own soul’.

He is right. Millions of British small businesses already know that the EU’s appetite for regulation is denting their competitive advantage – Brussels-approved oven gloves being the most recent example of a regulatory mindset that is at odds with the founding vision of creating wealth and security through trade between nations. Everyone in business has their own examples of how Europe’s bureaucrats have given them the benefit of their limited wisdom: vacuum-cleaner manufacturer James Dyson is critical of ‘sustainability legislation that rewards sustained mediocrity and waste’ and is taking the European Commission to court over its latest efficiency regulations. I know who I’d trust to make decent domestic products – and it isn’t Jean-Claude Juncker.

That the European Commission is so blind to the realities of commerce is hardly surprising. Only a handful of the 28 commissioners have any meaningful commercial experience running the sorts of businesses that ultimately pay their bills. The vast majority come from the law, academia and professional political careers, which perhaps explains their surprise that an unexpected bill for £1.7bn might piss off the unfortunate people having to cough up the readies. Likewise a shortfall to the tune of €259bn would prompt a fairly robust internal efficiency drive in the business world.

There is an arrogant culture of command economics, and you know we’re in deep trouble when the Commission President says ‘If Europe invests more, Europe will be more prosperous and create more jobs – it’s as simple as that’. Pope Francis’s description of the ‘bureaucratic technicalities’ of the EU’s institutions is spot on.

Over to the other speech on Europe: David Cameron was very good. Immigration is a big concern for people – I certainly found that canvassing back before the last general election. The UK’s system for redistributing wealth does throw up some clear incentives to up sticks from countries less well off than the UK. But remember that freedom of movement can also equate to asset stripping of nations, and in the past decade we’ve undoubtedly benefitted from harvesting some of the brightest, most laborious and entrepreneurial people from the EU’s newest members – and what their home country has gained in remittances, it has certainly lost in people with energy and innovation to drive their domestic economies forward. Tighter immigration controls may well be more palatable to scrapping tax credits for migrants (which I worry risks creating an underclass of migrants living on very, very little) but the depth of EU reform needed to restore controls over movement might require divine intervention.

So the battle to shape the future of the EU was laid out by two very different voices. One rooted in pragmatic politics, with a tougher line on immigration pitching to Labour’s blue collar voters as much as it is aimed at neutering, if not shooting, Nigel Farage’s fox. But it was the man from the Vatican whose critique resonated strongest with me, given the immense challenge of reforming the EU in the face of inertia from beneficiary states, not to mention the 23,000 people employed in Brussels’ ivory towers. Cardinal Bergoglio’s career was built on humble service and fiscal discipline with the Church’s resources, which sounds like something that the lawyers and professors of the Commission should be up for. But David Cameron and the Pope as bosom eurobuddies? I didn’t see that one coming.

First published by Platform 10 on December 8th, 2014

24 September 2014

My letter to Professor Arthur, Provost at UCL

Dear Professor Arthur,

I am a UCL Geography graduate, and loved my time at University College. London is an expensive place to be a student, but the biggest single help in managing my finances was riding my bicycle to university every day, rather than being stung by public transport costs.

You may have seen that the Mayor has launched an ambitious programme of segregated cycle lanes in Central London. This has been opposed by a few powerful business groups, and UCL is a member of one of these – London First. However if you've followed the issue you'll also have noticed that top graduate employers are backing the new cycle infrastructure. Deloitte says "cycle highways will help us attract & retain the people our business needs to thrive", while Simon & Schuster says "a growing number of our employees cycle to work. More would if they felt safer on the road".

I realise UCL's membership of London First goes way beyond cycling infrastructure, but I know I speak for my classmates in encouraging you to distance UCL from their hostility towards the new bike lanes. Will you publicly throw UCL's weight behind the Mayor's plans for improving the lot of London's cyclists – many of whom are your students and staff?

Best wishes,

Matthew Plummer


POSTSCRIPT (6th November, 2014) Success! UCL has just announced full support for the Mayor's new bike infrastructure – see https://www.ucl.ac.uk/greenucl/greenucl-news-publication/ucl-backs-proposed-cycle-superhighway

28 May 2014

Four months of campaigning in Latchmere, AKA Operation 'Snatch the Latch'

I've had a few days to digest Wandsworth's 2014 borough elections – and my first time standing as a candidate. That in itself was hugely exciting as being able to tell someone that I will do my best is infinitely better than saying that I'm calling on behalf of John / Joanna Bloggs, who is / will be a great champion for their community, etc. It was a fun campaign, and I managed to get a few things done for people who were of the 'I'm not voting because you're all as bad as each other' persuasion - and hopefully changed their minds. But with a 35% turnout the reality is a lot of people just don't care about having their say in how the local council is run, which is a pity, as most of the services they use on a daily basis stem from the Town Hall rather than Westminster.

I was selected back in... February, I think? It seems like an age ago, but actually wasn't that long – and certainly not long enough to loosen the grip that Labour has on Latchmere, a ward that has never elected a Tory councillor – not even back in the days of 0% Poll Tax, when my friend Tim Loughton took Labour's majority down from 1500 to 300. Operation 'Snatch the Latch' was always a bit of a long shot. My result saw us hold our share of the vote at 2010 levels* (despite our government now sitting just behind Labour in the national polls), but I came fourth, just under 700 votes behind the last of Labour's three candidates. I campaigned hard, but it wasn't enough, and the sole consolation is knowing that we managed to tie down some of Labour's resources that would have otherwise gone to the neighbouring battleground ward where we squeaked in two councillors in a very tight contest.

There were some wonderful moments during the campaign. I made new friends, met people with fascinating stories and was occasionally distracted from canvassing long enough to make the process feel more like an exercise in getting to know a community than simply compiling a database on how people would vote. A woman told me about growing up in the slums that were cleared where the Winstanley Estate is now, and about how her grandfather remembered Battersea before it was heavily developed. Latchmere Road back then was simply a dirt track known as 'Pig Hill' and used as a route for taking livestock from Clapham Common to the market. One guy told me he'd be voting Tory because 'you don't solve a cost of living crisis by fixing prices – you do it by taking less money from us in the first place' – I should have passed his details on to Lynton Crosby. Another woman – previously canvassed as 'strong Labour' (but married to a 'strong Conservative') told me that 'Maggie Thatcher abolished me, but you seem lovely and so you can have a hug'. Apparently riding a fixie makes me 'far too cool to be a councillor'. And then there was the time I was biking down Sheepcote Lane on my way home from some canvassing, when a large A4 Pacific steam locomotive rushed past – an amazing sight, and almost up there with the view from the 20th floor of Dresden House.

Blue vs Red at Battersea Labour's HQ
Election day was madness – albeit carefully planned madness. I was humbled at how many of my friends came to help, and the memory of them 'knocking-up' our supporters in Battersea Fields and on the Winstanley will stay with me for a long time. I'm normally a fairly sedate cyclist, but I'm still a little amazed that I didn't have some horrific smack on May 22nd as I hared between polling stations, campaign teams and our committee room. Note to self: if standing for election again take extra shirts for polling day, as one of the Labour candidates told me afterwards that she'd thought I was a well turned out bloke in a tweed jacket, and was surprised when I showed up at the count looking like I'd run a marathon in my shirt, jeans and converses. We started at 5am, and by the time I got to the count I was – suffice to say – exhausted, but not so tired that I couldn't keep up the family rule of having a drink with the opposition once the results were announced. I'm sure this raised some eyebrows on our side, but it's a good tradition as it means you need to fight a hard – but fair – campaign, and ultimately we're still all residents of Wandsworth once the elections are done and dusted. And this is how I came to find myself playing fußball with Battersea Labour's parliamentary candidate Will Martindale and their organiser Sean Lawless as dawn broke on Friday, with one of their activists (clearly a Blairite) lumped together with me as 'Team Tory'. They are decent people who just happen to be profoundly wrong about how we build a better community and improve people's living standards. Labour beat us on the night, but we'll bounce back stronger – after all (as I pointed out to the comrades at 6am) that's what the markets are all about: good, healthy competition driving us on to better things.

* Apparently our result in Latchmere was the best of any opposition held seat in Wandsworth.

First published by Bright Blue on June 2nd, 2014

24 May 2014

Buying sex shouldn't be criminalised: some thoughts on New Zealand's experience

Every so often our politicians declare that ‘it’s time to prosecute men for buying sex’; most recently with Caroline Spelman’s call for men to make their views clearer about prostitution. I’m one of few men who’ll own up to visiting brothels and spending time with call girls. Alas – for those getting hot under the collar with anticipation – my time spent cruising red light zones was strictly professional: I spent most of 2008 photographing sex workers in New Zealand for my dissertation, which documented how the country’s decriminalisation of sex work in 2003 had changed the industry.

New Zealand’s prostitution law reform sidestepped passing judgment on the ethics of prostitution, focusing simply on improving ‘the welfare and occupational health and safety of sex workers’. This might sound bureaucratic, but women in the sex industry are now protected by society, rather than marginalised from it. I remember the case of a bloke who’d pulled his condom off when he was in a brothel. The $400 fine the courts served him seemed paltry; but his name was published when the local newspapers covered the case. He was the bad person, rather than the ‘woman of ill repute’ he’d been visiting, which seemed pretty reasonable to me.

From 'The New Professionals' (Matthew Plummer)
My experience from the dozens I met in the industry was that sex work is remarkably mundane, and the stories I heard about the (mostly) men who paid for sex were pretty humdrum: widowers, couples who’d stopped having sex, and so on. But I can’t remember meeting sex workers who expressly disliked their job. Many were comfortable – even proud – of what they did for a living, with the main complaint being that decriminalisation had seen a slump in their earnings. This (I was told by an MP who debated the 2003 legislation) came down to basic economics, with price being a product of supply and demand. And on that basis criminalising the purchase of sex would be a nasty double whammy for prostitutes, as not only would they be at the mercy of clients on the wrong side of the law, but it would also drive down earnings: hardly the way to look after vulnerable people.

Of course the press loves running stories of women brought to the UK and forced into sex work; trafficked victims in heels and lipstick make for far more exciting copy than cases of domestic servitude or forced agricultural work. The English Collective of Prostitutes has done a comprehensive rebuttal of the girls-trafficked-into-prostitution misconception which is worth reading, and various estimates on the numbers of women being trafficked to Britain to work as prostitutes have proved to be wildly inaccurate. This doesn’t surprise me; statistics gathered by the police in New Zealand in the aftermath of the 2003 decriminalisation showed the numbers of active sex workers had been overstated by a factor of ten. The murky legal and social status of the profession makes gathering hard data almost impossible, and I can’t imagine that things are any different over here. Far better to bring it out of the shadows, with taxes paid and health and safety regulations enforced, rather than creating a needlessly dangerous underworld and wasting valuable police resources.

First published by Coffee House on May 16th, 2014

10 May 2014

How to win Eurovision: trust the market, not the suits

Cezar singing It's My Life (Eurovision)
There was a wonderful moment a couple of months ago when I realised just how awfully monolithic the BBC can be. The news had emerged (in a manner not too dissimilar to announcements from Moscow) that some apparatchik at Auntie had chosen Molly Smitten-Downes to represent the UK at this year's Eurovision song contest. In finest TASS Report style the cameras cut to dear old Molly singing what I rapidly realised was a truly terrible dirge. I don't want to bag her too much because Molly is taking one for the team, but her song manages to get people stop waving and cheering within the first 18 seconds – fatal for a big arena contest like Eurovision.

So Britain – a country that leads European thinking in the power of the free markets to drive quality – remains curiously statist in our Eurovision choices, with Molly just another hapless foot-soldier sent to the front. Those of you who have seen Enemy at the Gates will recall the scene where the Soviet soldiers advancing on the Germans are told to fight on with the weapons of their fallen comrades, and I can almost hear Molly's stage handler on the big night giving her that same sort of encouragement. It's a naff song that just blathers on about 'children of the universe' and 'power to the people'. Compare this with Cezar, last years' act from Romania: his song It's My Life left no-one in doubt that a bloke doing a gothic Transylvanian falsetto act really was having the time of his life. It was bonkers, brilliant and so obviously not a bureaucrat's pet choice.

Of course we know the markets are very good at picking winners, and proof of this is Sweden's Melodifestivalen, a national talent contest with the public and judges combining their votes through several televised heats, and an epic final in one of the country's major cities. I was living in Stockholm when the 2006 contest was on, and the primetime show (with a sell out live audience of 16,000) was charmingly quirky – and had some really good music. Sweden's mass public involvement in selecting its Eurovison entries has produced nine top-five finishes in the past 15 years – and two overall winners. Last year's entry Robin Stjernberg was really good. But in that time Britain has had two acts make the top-ten, and with three coming rock bottom. The BBC has resurrected Bonnie Tyler, dispatched novelty acts like Daz Sampson and seen Jemini collect a comprehensive nul points wooden spoon.

A winning Eurovision song needs support from people across the European Broadcasting Union – indeed you can usually hear the better songs playing in bars and clubs across the Continent over the summer. Conversely our artists have the press mentioning some play time on Radio Two. Smitten-Downes acknowledges that 'good music breaks through' Europe's cultural barriers, but sadly her song isn't at that level, and she'll be lucky to make it into the top ten acts in tonight's contest. Sweden, on the other hand, are hot favourites to win – yet again. It is time to put trust in the people, rather than a faceless suit in Broadcasting House.

POSTSCRIPT – Sweden finished 3rd and the UK came 17th in the 2014 contest.

First published by Bright Blue on May 10th, 2014

7 April 2014

The Ryanair Generation knows the EU needs reform

Reading David Cameron's Telegraph piece on his vision for a reformed European Union found me reflecting on a conversation I had a decade ago with my friend Paul. I'd been in New Zealand for the past five years and was in the final throes of packing up to move back to London. Paul was – with the help of a lot of beer – telling me what a whale of a time I was about to have.

“Europe's changed, mate,” he explained. “You can fly anywhere for a tenner. A flight to Zagreb costs less than a train ticket to Manchester. Girls, parties, culture – it'll all be on your doorstep once you're back in London.”

He was right. At the drop of a hat Michael O'Leary and Stelios did more for European integration than decades of Brussels edicts could ever have hoped for. If you're under the age of 40 you're part of the Ryanair Generation – with workmates from Poland, Hungarian girlfriends (or boyfriends), stag weekends in Prague and summers spent on the Adriatic coast.

So on the face of it Cameron's 2017 referendum isn't a big deal for us: we're more concerned about finding work, getting qualifications, the cost of transport, buying houses and falling in love. 'Banging on about Europe' isn’t on the radar.

But our international outlook also means we know just how unrealistic the whole notion of 'ever closer union' is, given our first-hand experience of the huge cultural diversity across the Continent. This sits uncomfortably with a sense that our destiny lies with Europe. The current Ukraine-Russia crisis is the perfect illustration of this dilemma. British sympathies are overwhelmingly with the pro-West faction in Ukraine, and whatever is left of Ukraine after Putin has dissected the country will be desperate to join the EU, which – given Kiev's current predicament – is entirely understandable.

The genesis of the European project lies in the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community in the aftermath of World War Two, which aimed to build security through trade. Six decades on from this the Ryanair Generation's natural instinct would normally be to welcome Ukrainian accession with open arms. Yet this is obviously not going to happen given the unitary design of today's EU, with its high barriers to entry. Ukraine is even more corrupt than Russia and its economy is smaller than Romania's, despite having double the population. Ukraine in the EU would be an administrative catastrophe, with a bonanza of passports for sale from dodgy officials, and destructive brain-drain of the country's brightest and best heading west to secure better wages and better life prospects.

As things stand full EU membership is an unrealistic dream for Ukraine, which is a pretty damning verdict on the introspective political cadre in Brussels. David Cameron's agenda for reforms has the potential to get the EU heading in a more sustainable direction, which as anyone living in Lviv or Kiev knows can't happen soon enough. The Ryanair Generation wishes him well.

First published by Bright Blue on April 7th, 2014

3 April 2014

2014 Wandsworth borough elections (2)

One of the things I most enjoy about 'politics' is the whole business of knocking on doors and talking to people. The general media discourse seems to be that people feel alienated from politics, but this rarely correlates with my experience on the doorstep. I've found people are engaged and do have a degree of faith in the whole concept of local representation, helped in large part because Wandsworth Conservatives have a reputation for running the borough well, keeping council tax down and representing the interests of all of society across the Borough.

Alas... it isn't all lovely conversations on people's doorsteps - there's the whole business of delivering our literature, and the office called last week to tell me that the Spring newsletters (see below) were ready for collection - so if you see someone with a large bag walking around Latchmere at high speed stop me and say hello!

18 March 2014

2014 Wandsworth borough elections (1)

Back in February I was selected to be one of the Tory candidates in Latchmere, a ward in Wandsworth that encompasses the area just to the north of Clapham Junction station. It'll be a tough campaign as the seat has – to my knowledge – been Labour heartland since time immemorial.

That said, we're in with a fighting chance, as the Conservatives in Wandsworth have a fantastic track record, with outstanding local services and the UK's lowest average council tax. Crucially we have very little debt – something achieved on the back of prudent management since we took control of the council back in 1978 (when I was born!). If the rest of the country could see how we ran the council then Labour wouldn't even have the faintest sniff of a chance in the national elections. Our low council tax is a huge help to the most disadvantaged in the Borough, as the council tax reduction that central government gives the disabled means they effectively don't pay a penny.

For those of you who are interested (there will be some, I know!) here's the freshly designed calling card we're going out campaigning with tonight.

25 February 2014

'Everybody rides now: the most fashionable people have taken it up!'

This is an essay I wrote during my final year as a undergraduate at UCL, and it might be of interest to anyone interested in a previous boom era for bicycles in the capital.


How was cycling in London represented and debated in contemporary texts and illustrations of the late 19th and early 20th century?

I'm interested in how cycling was portrayed in the period between the late Victorian era and the start of the Great War, a time during which cycling moved from relative novelty to an accepted part of London's transport landscape – and a far cry from the advent of the velocipede half a century earlier, when ugly scenes were common: 'In London, one unfortunate 'velocipeder' found himself surrounded by a hostile mob. He frantically hailed a stagecoach, flung his machine on its rooftop, jumped in, and sped off to safety (Herlihy 2006:34). More worryingly, the London College of Surgeons had spoken out against the machines which were 'dangerous to the rider and likely to cause 'ruptures': only a fool would persist' (2006:38).

The 1880s saw the bicycle evolve from being a 'boneshaker' into something with which today's machines share a clear lineage, and Rubenstein identifies two important innovations that brought about the transformation. John Kemp Starley's 'Rover' safety bicycle (illustration 1) had both wheels of similar size, a feature that was advertised as 'set to fashion the world' (1977:48) after it was launched in 1885, with its diamond-shaped frame saving riders from 'mounting a thing like a giraffe, from which an impromptu descent offers unpleasant possibilities' (Herlihy 2006:167). Likewise Dunlop's pneumatic tyre dominated the market after it was introduced in 1888, and Rubenstein argues that these improvements meant that 'cycling could become a method of transport and recreation suitable to both sexes and most ages. Men and women who sought increased social emancipation were eagerly and gratefully to take advantage of what invention and mass production made possible' (1977:48). No longer a curiosity, bicycles were ready for the masses.

Illustration 1: John Kemp Starley's 'Rover' safety bicycle
(Coventry Transport Museum)

These innovations helped facilitate increasingly impressive feats of athleticism. Events that pitted cyclists against horses remained popular until relatively late in the day – English champion David Stanton famously taking on a trap drawn by 'Lady Flora' and her driver Mr. MacDonald at Alexandra Palace in 1875 (Herlihy 2006:165). However Stanton also raced in that same year between London and Bath, covering the distance in just under 12 hours, and demonstrating that bicycles were going to be a realistic transport proposition for many (Herlihy 2006:179). 20 years later Wandsworth's 'Grove Cycling Club' was holding weekly rides of 30-50 miles into the Surrey Hills (illustration 2), which would have been made much easier by the developments in bicycle technology in the intervening two decades.

Illustration 2: The 1897 fixtures card for Wandsworth's 'Grove Cycling Club'
(Museum of London)

Social acceptance of the bicycle was transformed in the last decades of the 19th Century, and Rubenstein describes how in 1895 'popularity became passion', with the ladies of London's high society transforming attitudes towards bicycles amidst a wider bicycle craze. This change was noted by Victorian cycling journalist Constance Everett-Green, who observed that 'it would hardly be too much to say that in April of 1895 one was considered eccentric for riding a bicycle, whilst by the end of June eccentricity rested with those who did not ride.' (Rubinstein 1977:49). Horrall notes that even the least athletic Londoners were keen to be associated with cycling: 'the rotund Sir Augustus Harris, the legendary manager of the Drury Lane Theatre who had created the modern Christmas Pantomime, was photographed outside his home dressed in a business suit leaning uneasily against a bicycle' (2001:55). Women speeding around on two wheels did – however – raise some eyebrows, with Herbert Barrs writing a musical comedy called 'The bicycle girl', which he subtitled salaciously 'The scorcher'! (Horrall 2001:55).

Rubinstein estimates that this period would have seen about 750,000 bicycles built annually, with the number of cycle manufacturing and repair businesses in London growing from 54 in 1889 to 390 in 1897 (1977:53). Despite ebbing popularity after the 1895-97 boom, cycling remained commonplace, with business confidence in the industry holding up, particularly given that 'the cheap mobility offered by bicycles, specially in emancipating women, was resolutely most popular with the lower middle classes' (Horrall 2001:60-61).

This sense of freedom runs through a wonderful interview the Manchester Guardian's correspondent conducted with John Burns (Independent Socialist MP for Battersea) at the start of the 1900 General Election:
Anxious to see Battersea on the eve of the greatest struggle in its history, I had ridden south-west to the silver Thames, crossed that beautiful park, with its smooth roads, its ample playing fields, and large calm waters, and had emerged in the Battersea Road (The Guardian: online).
The journalist's choice of words are incredibly evocative of freedom and effortless transport in a city that was growing rapidly, and over a century later they still place me firmly in the saddle of a bicycle, particularly as the piece continues:
He was riding towards me on his bicycle, the handlebars decked with a bunch of blue and white ribbons; alert, robust, radiant with confident strength. He greeted me with a gay smile, and, riding side by side, we left the crowds of his too urgent followers and glided into a quieter street (ibid.).
These passages suggests that the roads of Battersea were smooth and well maintained, which adds to the sense of working class pride in the area being toured, with the journalist adding that 'there is little or no squalor, and in this district in the Shaftesbury estate you have a model of how poor men should live well - small, neat cottages, prettily built, each with a gift of "home" for the occupants' (The Guardian: online) – all very much in keeping with the newspaper's socially progressive outlook. Here the bicycle is an accepted, inconsequential part of city life – even with Burns' ribbons festooned on his bicycle – but it also an important tool for the London correspondent's carrying out his daily rounds: this ability to move around the city is highlighted by the description how the pair 'left the villas, crossed the main road and entered the working-class district with that swiftness of transition which makes life on a bicycle so vastly exhilarating and entertaining' (ibid.). The passage also points out how bicycles are able to break down social barriers as they enable people move (and see) other parts of the city far more easily than if they were on foot.

As a cycling member of parliament Burns was able to cover his constituency quickly, and this helped him to build his reputation as one of London's great MPs – he represented Battersea from 1892 to 1918, and today one of the Woolwich ferries is named after him. But the ability to cover ground also meant he was the first on hand when a woman died from heat exhaustion in Battersea Park in 1896 (see illustration 3).

Illustration 3: The death of Mrs. Hodgkins, erroneously depicting a policeman as the first to offer assistance
(Illustrated Police News)

However the cover mistakenly has a policeman assisting the dying woman, which was incorrect:
It was not a policeman named Burns, who first went to the assistance of the unfortunate lady, but John Burns, the member for Battersea, was but a few yards distant, and as might be expected, he at once endeavored to render what help he could, but alas! it was already too late to render any material assistance. (The Wheelwoman and Society Cycling News 1896:15)
The picture shows a rider – presumably male, given the practical clothing – disappearing off in the distance, and this suggests that by 1896 women were able to ride alone without raising eyebrows. Alternatively the point could be somewhat more barbed: despite the freedom of being on two wheels, society is still leaving women behind, encumbered with expectations that are far short of reality. Regardless, the event was reported by the 'Wheelwoman and Society Cycling News' as a 'warning at the heads of wheel women, not to cycle during hot days', with the journal advising that:
Unsuitable clothes, combined with too tight corsets, were more to blame perhaps than the heat. There is nothing more fatal to the health and comfort in cycling than tight lacing, and yet hundreds of women, to whom Nature has been kind in giving them good figures, torture themselves and all lovers of beauty by cramping themselves into clothes that are many inches too small for them. (The Wheelwoman and Society Cycling News 1896:6)
The Illustrated Police News – a cheap weekly tabloid – was notorious for its sensationalized coverage of late Victorian society, and its depiction of the last moments of Mrs. Hodgkins is highly dramatic, yet rich with detail: the details of her corset are captured, as is the shocked expression on the onlooking' faces. There is a tragic contrast between the practicality of her bicycle – with skirt protector covering the rear wheel and chain guard protecting her from grease – and the billowing clothing she is wearing. While her outfit seems impractical to the modern eye, the contemporary report suggests that her dress sense on two wheels was commonplace, and that Mrs. Hodgkins was merely unlucky to be be afflicted by the heat. Indeed, contemporary issues of the Illustrated London News carried advertisements for tailor-made women's cycling clothing (illustration 4), although this still looks constricted, suggesting that practicality came second fiddle to fitting into late 19th Century London's social norms. It is encouraging to see that the Wheelwoman and Society Cycling News's report encouraged women to dress practically, and not for broader social expectations. 118 years on I imagine a comparable journal today would be firmly behind people wearing lycra on their ride to and from work!

Illustration 4: Women's cycling clothing in the mid-1890s
(Illustrated London News)

Despite this tragic episode, Horrall's argument that bicycles were particularly significant in the emancipation of women is borne out by contemporary material. Elizabeth Robins Pennell was an American woman who lived in London for 30 years, and from 1884 she embarked on a series of adventurous cycle tours with her husband – first to Canterbury, but increasingly further afield, including “Berlin to Budapest on a bicycle' in 1892 (illustration 5). These were published in the Illustrated London News, and her accounts would have fired up London's women to greater degrees of independence – after all, if the author could handle Berlin's railway porters the readership would have no trouble with adventures closer to home. And her male audience would also have been impressed with her exploits – Robins Pennell wrote in the first person, clearly distinguishing her experiences from those of her husband Joseph when she writes 'I have told J––––'s story of his adventures by the way; now I must tell you mine' (Robins Pennell 1892:766). This clear assertion shows that she was her own woman, and her cycling adventures around London and further afield were part of her independent image.

Illustration 5: Berlin to Budapest on a bicycle (Illustrated London News)

Back in London Robins Pennell entertained the likes of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw (Bertelsen 2009), suggesting that she was something of a celebrity journalist, and a trendsetter among London's women cyclists. Robins Pennell was certainly a keen advocate of following cycling technology, having switched in 1886 from a two-person tricycle that she shared with her husband to an early single person safety bicycle (Zheutlin 2008:33). Together with women like Annie 'Londonderry' Cohen Copchovsky (the first woman to 'ride' around the world) Robins Pennell fired up the imagination of the growing suffragette movement back in London, and entwining an enjoyable means of transport around London with the politics of women seeking the right to vote.

By 1898 the suffragette Frances Abbott was in a position to write:
I have lived to see the woman who never wished her daughter to have a bicycle ride a wheel herself in company with that daughter; and when I ventured to recall her former opinions she said with unblushing serenity: ‘Oh, well, everybody rides now; the most fashionable people have taken it up; there is really nothing like it’, and she began to chide me because I did not own a wheel. (1898:150)
The early 1900s saw a renaissance in the women's suffrage movement, and its campaigns produced highly evocative material that aimed – with varying degrees of subtlety – to make the case for female enfranchisement. The National Union of Women's Suffragette Societies (NUWSS) made long journeys to London by bicycle, and Illustration 6 shows the successful women of such a ride in 1913 surrounded by others in the movement. It portrays them in a manner similar to regimental and sports photos, and photographs like this demonstrate both the resilience and adventurousness of these women in making such a long ride, set in terms that men – used to team photos – would appreciate. The banner also lays down a direct challenge, explicitly pointing out that women have achieved something that only a few decades earlier would have been an accomplishment for the likes of champion rider David Stanton.

Illustration 6: NUWSS Land's End to London ride (The Women's Library)

Photographs were used to present reality and challenge conservative thought, but the early 1900s saw also propaganda artwork from the likes of the Artist's Suffrage League, which was based in Chelsea. 'Young New Zealand' (Illustration 7) points out that women in the newest of the Empire's Dominions had enjoyed universal suffrage since 1893. The poster taps into the public's acceptance of women cyclists, with a girl representing 'Young New Zealand' dressed in practical clothes, rather than the excess that seemingly did for Mrs. Hodgkins. And by having her hand in her pocket the poster suggests the girl has a laid back mastery of her machine, as poking fun at the social expectations of the 1900s – represented by the hatted man.

Illustration 7: Artists' Suffrage League propaganda from 1907 (Museum of London)

But it also plays on the evolution of the bicycle, as anyone walking out of the Artists' Suffrage League offices on the King's Road would have waited a long time for a penny farthing to pass by – by that point they were obselete. The limited enfranchisement of British women to vote in municipal elections in 1907 is acknowledged by the small rear wheel of the penny farthing, but the ungainly appearance of the man riding his bicycle rams home the Artists' Suffrage League main point – not giving women the vote smacks of the 1880s, a bygone era.

Looking back over the contemporary material bicycles clearly represent the zeitgeist of London during the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. Cycling tapped into the British spirit of industrial innovation, with the pneumatic tyre making riding on two wheels something for all, rather than a few hardy souls capable of enduring the 'boneshaker'. But they also represented social change, with the surge in 'wheelwomen' initially demonstrating that they were more than capable of exercising the freedom inherent in riding a bike, and subsequently pouring fuel on the nascent suffragette movement.

Yet the idea of a cycling 'craze' seems a little hard to reconcile. Certainly bicycle popularity exploded in the mid-1890s, but it was a popularity that endured well into the era of the motor car, and looking at the material a century later it is easy to match the sensationalist, judgmental coverage of Mrs. Hodgkins' death with that of the spate of cyclist deaths in late 2013, and the sometimes excitable coverage that bike riding received in London's media – much in the spirit of the Illustrated Police News.


Abbott, F. (1898) ‘A comparative view of the woman suffrage movement’ North American Review 166(495) p.142–152

Anonymous (1896) The Wheelwoman and Society Cycling News, 1st August p.6, 15. Available at: http://www.newspapers.com/newspage/34415508/ [Accessed: 11 Jan 2014].

Bertelsen, C. (2009) 'A greedy woman: the long, delicious shelf life of Elizabeth Robins Pennell' Fine Books Magazine, 44 Available at: http://www.finebooksmagazine.com/issue/200908/pennell-1.phtml [Accessed: 12th January 2014].

Herlihy, D. (2006) 'Bicycle: the history' New Haven: Yale University Press

Horrall, A (2001) 'Popular culture in London 1890-1918: the transformation of entertainment' Manchester: Manchester University Press

Robins Pennell, (1892) 'Berlin to Budapest on a Bicycle' Illustrated London News 1892:766

Rubinstein, D. (1977) 'Cycling in the 1890s' Victorian Studies 21(1) p.47-71

The Guardian (1900) 'A bicycle interview with John Burns, Battersea's man to beat' London: The Guardian Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2012/oct/02/john-burns-battersea-cycling-archive-1900 [Accessed: 9th January 2014].

Zheutlin,P. (2008) 'Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry's Extraordinary Ride' New York: Citadel Press

19 February 2014

A gigantic shunting of workers

Last week the Office for National Statistics published research that found commuters who spend between 60 and 120 minutes travelling to work have lower life satisfaction, see their employment as less worthwhile, have lower happiness levels and greater anxiety. This in itself is hardly surprising, but it is useful to be reminded by hard data that ‘commuting is clearly and negatively associated with personal well-being’. Unsurprisingly the research suggested that people who work from home as the happiest: I’m self-employed, and the rare occasions I’m rammed into a rush-hour Northern Line train remind me just how lucky I am to avoid the daily grind on the underground.

Commuter at Waterloo
Our enthusiasm for commuting over long distances owes much to our historically excellent infrastructure, but also the failure to make modern city life accord with modern needs – not my words, but those of The Spectator back in 1964, which recognised that the ‘gigantic shunting of workers across the London conurbation’ was batty. This is particularly so when you recognise that drivers pay hefty fuel bills and require government to build costly roads, and that railway commuters need billions spent on capacity solutions like Crossrail (and Crossrail 2) while paying eye-watering amounts for season tickets. If your daily commute is an hour each way every day of the week, come Friday you’ll have lost a cumulative working day paying for the privilege of sitting in a traffic jam with cyclists whizzing past you. Personally I’d rather spend my time with my family and friends, rather than listening to Southern tell me that yet again they ‘are’ sorry to announce that blah, blah, blah.

For many people the daily pilgrimage to work is an unwitting yet rational response to decades of poor urban planning. Escaping to the countryside to exercise what Nick Boles describes as ‘a right to a home with a little bit of ground around it to bring your family up in’ is perfectly reasonable given some of the shocking housing built across the country in recent decades. After all, if your home is little more than a shoebox, having a garden for your children to play in is very sensible!

Yet ripping up the green belt to build garden cities simply compounds the cost and misery of commuting. Instead we need higher-quality housing in London and our other urban areas that entices people into living closer to where they work, and to challenge what the ONS describes as ‘inertia’ towards our rigid commuting patterns. Historically Britain’s inner city areas were much more densely populated than the leafy outer suburbs: today the reverse is true.

Fortunately there is hope. New homes are being built at sites like Battersea Power Station to higher design standards, and there is a renewed interest in promoting walking and cycling to work. And adopting new guidelines like ‘Building for Life 12′ means that for the first time in decades we are taking significant steps to avoid blighting lives at the planning stage with the expense and wasted hours of traffic updates and platform announcements – with which the inhabitants of our existing garden cities are only too familiar.

First published by Platform 10 on February 19th, 2014