This afternoon, the London Assembly was due to debate a motion about whether the speed limit at Blackfriars Bridge should be kept at 20mph or raised to 30mph. Prior to the vote, the Conservative Assembly Members walked out of the chamber, rendering any vote inquorate.
Why would the Tories do this? They must know that a walk-out is only likely to increase the publicity of this motion, and inflame an already irascible opposition (particularly because this also prevented a clean air motion from taking place). Twitter is already awash with angry people, demanding a reaction.
In order to see why the Conservative AMs have acted so, and therefore to plan an appropriate response, it is necessary to understand the following: people in favour of promoting motor traffic at the expense of pedestrians and cyclists are also in favour of the the 20mph motion gaining publicity.
I will try to explain why. This may become slightly theoretical, but please bear with me as I think this is crucial to our response.
The malleability of political reality
Political possibilities morph over time. Ideas which were once unthinkable become policy. In 1984, 50% of the country thought unemployment benefits were too low, and 30% too high. By 2009, those figures had switched places. (British Soc. Attitudes Survey.) The vigour and vitriol with which the current government has been able to attack welfare benefits could only have been dreamt of by Geoffrey Howe, or Nigel Lawson.
The constraints on potentially achievable political outcomes are constantly moving – this much we know. There are social, cultural, economic and political reasons for this. Let’s talk about the political.
Political constraints as a function of political action
As Steve Waldman brilliantly argues, a fact which is too often ignored is that the distribution of future [political] constraints is a function of present moves.
Waldman describes a world where there are two opposing teams. The first is a group of intelligent technocrats, who believe that the movement of political constraints is beyond their control, and that therefore their most advantageous political move is to argue for the optimum choice available to them within the current, given constraints.
The second group is comprised of politicians who understand, correctly, that their own actions influence what future political constraints will be.
Both teams act according to their respective viewpoints, and both are of the view that the other team’s actions are illogical. But, the technocratic team, the people who are constantly exasperated about the perfidy and sheer irrationality of the other side, is the team that is in fact ill-informed.
Walk-out as political weapon
We have to understand today’s vote not as a poll on a speed limit on a bridge, but as an event which shapes the culture of political possibility.
Today there was an argument about whether one component of an already dangerous and unpleasant road should be worsened, or kept the same. The outcome is irrelevant. The fact that this is the debate we’re having shows that those of us opposed to the primacy of the motor vehicle in London are failing to campaign.
Even its staunchest critics accept that the London Cycle Campaign has recently changed direction. It is undeniable that the LCC has been more active and vocal than usual. In choosing the 20mph speed limit as the focus of the Blackfriars issue, it has probably even successfully selected the most marketable aspect of the current plans to rally people behind.
The very fact that this campaign has worked – and yet those who oppose us are manoeuvring to gain publicity for this motion – demonstrates that we are fighting the wrong battle.
As Waldman notes,
Going forward, we oughtn’t confine ourselves to making the best of a terrible ideological environment. We should be considering how we might alter that environment to be more conducive of good policy.
This is why everyone who wants London’s road conditions improved needs to be arguing for a radical reallocation of street space. It is the reason to support the Cycling Embassy of GB, Clean Air London and Living Streets (Disclaimer: the views in this post are mine not theirs). Not necessarily because you think these organisations will ever fully succeed – or even because you support all of their goals. But because it is the only way to change the parameters that define the possible.
In 2002, George Bush’s notorious advisor Karl Rove famously said the following to his opponents:
When we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.
Cyclists, pedestrians and anyone who wants London’s streets to be a more pleasant place to be have a choice. We can study the political constraints set by our opponents and select the least-bad choice from within them. Or we can change those constraints.
What do we do now?
Naturally, we need to respond. But if we respond simply with a go-slow over Blackfriars Bridge, demanding that the speed limit is maintained, all this does is reinforce the culture that the only politically possible options are either a horrendous road with the current speed limit, or a horrendous road with an increased speed limit.
Whatever we do next, whether it is a go-slow, or something more inclusive of pedestrians and others affected by the Tory walk-out, one thing is clear:
The time for asking for the speed limit not to be increased is over. Our protest needs to demand that Blackfriars bridge be closed to motor traffic.
It’s time to change the discussion.