by Meg Sherman.
City Red buses’ decision to terminate their entire service in Southampton from February 2023 is an acute manifestation of a regressive wider trend of public service retrenchment, associated with fiscal austerity. It is the sad but inevitable consequence of a culture of reckless privatisation and outsourcing of ownership and governance of, once public, utilities. Neoliberalism enjoyed an ideological coup in the UK, a fifty year dominance brutally enforced by market evangelist Margaret Thatcher. With a near fundamentalist zeal public utilities were incrementally auctioned off – both during and after her tenure. They are now corporately governed monopolies, unaccountable and wilfully predatory, that damage communities, purposefully generating capital flight out of communities, common wealth siphoned off into private hands. Unless Southampton City Council steps in and bring transport back into public ownership, they will be failing the masses and creating a toxic legacy for which they will rightfully be resented.
Parliament and local councils are party to a social contract in which their mandate is sanctioned by their success at the ballot box. However, and you need not be Sherlock to realise, with the rise of careerism in politics, manifesto promises we vote for are largely tossed aside after the elections and personal agendas covertly pursued, breaking the democratic code and rendering their power illegitimate. National and local policy tend to be coordinated by the way funds are allocated by central government and councils tend to develop policy aligned to the will of the national executive, even if it is reactionary, immoral and, sometimes, fatal.
This may seem an extreme comparison but it is nonetheless true that in the 20th century, social cleansing was enforced by brute force, whilst in the 21st century it is enforced by clauses hidden in seemingly benign legislation that isolates vulnerable people from the resources they need to thrive and survive. Whilst retrenchment of public transport services alone doesn’t seem so malicious, placed in context of threats and attacks on the NHS and purposeful erosion of the foundations of postwar social democracy, an achievement hard fought for by our ancestors, the neglect of public transport infrastructure appears to be another step on the ladder towards capitulating the soul and substance of democracy to the lifeless, gray terms and conditions of a totalitarian corporate dictatorship.
Sadly local Labour councils are not currently mounting the kind of opposition they should be, around the country joining in with Tory oppression, utilising the rhetoric of the centre-left to disguise their betrayal of the working class. If Labour does not take the steps to meet the needs of the masses, alternative parties and fronts will inevitably emerge to fight for a fairer future. At once we have the Peace and Justice campaign of Jeremy Corbyn, a multi-issue campaign for the advancement of social justice in many spheres, whilst we also have the TUSC party, a coalition of socialist organisations, escalating into what could be a critical mass of citizens daring to dissent from the bleak establishment status quo.
Following the announcement from City Red, the Southampton community will be expecting strong and decisive action from the local authority to find a way to continue providing a reliable public transport service. To achieve this, although it’s likely it won’t, the local authority will need to re-evaluate its alignment to top-down austerity and engage with voices and perspectives from the grassroots, in which the mood is very much in favour of bringing utilities back into public, democratic ownership.
Total privatisation, though rapidly advancing, is not a foregone conclusion and is reversible, however strong the propaganda asserting its omnipotence, designed to neutralise us by engendering wide defeatism. But although both major parties subscribe to totalising neoliberalism, to an extent transnational corporatism rivals the political role of the church in the dark ages, there is power in the protest of those who beg to differ. The precise reason there is a white paper criminalising peaceful protest is because the executive is aware of the fragility of their power pitted against the unified might of the masses and the fragility of the borders currently separating government from the working class, borders in the form of elite institutions of hegemonic power.
Although these tangents seem to digress and withdraw from the specific issue of local public transport services in Southampton, in a way, the regrettable fact of treachery against the masses at a national level is in the same policy portfolio as the dereliction of community services. Underfunding, deregulation and privatisation of community institutions is at once acutely focused upon local services relied upon by people as the first, sometimes only, source of support beyond themselves, whilst operating at a national level in such a way these communities form a congregation of the afflicted.
A critical area of the struggle is in trade unions, who have had a major historical and contemporary role in catalysing social progress. Particularly in the context of the criminalisation of protest, trade unions are increasingly important as one of the only remaining legal conduits for campaigning. The premise of unions is simply to coherently organise the working class to unite behind shared goals. In the context of Southampton bus services the experience of local delegates of the bus drivers union clearly demonstrates the power they wield. The battle for fairer, safe, reliable, unionised, publicly owned bus services might be but one front of the struggle, but it might be the spark that ignites the total transformation of a corporate wasteland society into a panacea of freedom and liberty.
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