(Updated Christmas Eve, after spotting a flaw in my statistical analysis. I am deeply sad.)
Now that it’s well and truly over, two things really stick in my mind about the Manchester Congestion Charge vote. (Strictly speaking, the Manchester Transport Innovation Fund vote – but I don’t think it’s a fund that we voted to reject.)
One is the sheer strangeness of the Yes campaign. As you’ll already know if you live anywhere in Greater Manchester, this was a huge campaign. The public transport companies were in favour anyway, so you couldn’t get on a bus or a tram without being invited to vote Yes. But you couldn’t wait for a bus – or look out of the window once it started moving – without your eyes being met by the dull-eyed, faintly reproachful gaze of the Vote Yes People. (Click around the site for more. Perhaps not late at night.) They were everywhere. According to that Web site, the campaign was sponsored by TCS (a property company) and Practicus (an ‘interim management’ company, which seems to be something like middle-management recruitment only not quite; perhaps you don’t get an actual job at the end of it). Those two companies must be doing remarkably well, to have all that money to spend on someone else’s publicity; clearly names to watch. From the Vote Yes campaign’s point of view, though, I do wonder that nobody seems to have considered the potential downside of this level of saturation publicity. People don’t generally like being told what to do, least of all by spud-faced pod-people who purport to represent them.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad if the content of the campaign had been different. There were three waves of pod-people posterage, each a variation on the basic theme of What An Ordinary Manchester Person Is Thinking. (And ‘thinking’ is the word: nobody was actually speaking in those pictures. Look into my eyes! Hear my thoughts!) The first wave was the deeply annoying “I won’t be paying” theme. This wasn’t encouraging civil disobedience (which would probably be fairly futile with the level of surveillance required by the scheme). Rather, it was based on the idea that most people wouldn’t be making car journeys which would be hit by the charge – supposedly ‘eight out of ten people wouldn’t pay’ – and therefore most people ought to vote Yes.
This was a bad approach on so many levels. On the face of it, it was a straightforward appeal to self-interest: you want better public transport? you don’t want to pay more? lucky you, you won’t have to! But anyone who was already concerned about the charge, or suspected that they might be affected, had already had ample opportunities to do the sums for their own situations. (Full disclosure: I worked out that I’d be charged once a week. I really resented that.) Even if only 20% of the population was likely to be charged – and I’m sure people like me, incurring weekly charges, weren’t included in those calculations – the appeal to self-interest, for those people, would immediately backfire: saying that four out of five people wouldn’t pay isn’t much of a selling-point if you’re number 5.
For anyone who hadn’t given the charge much thought, on the other hand, the campaign could almost have been calculated to raise suspicions – precisely because of that weird and phony “we are ordinary people like you” framing. I won’t pay, says an actor representing a typical Manchester resident, because I only go into town at the weekend / I get to college by bus / I never go out of the house (I may have made up the last one). I suppose our reaction to these was supposed to be “good for us – tough luck on those people who insist on commuting by car”. Actually my instinctive reaction was “good for fictional you, but what about me?” If you’re going to appeal to self-interest, you need to get the story straight – once you start thinking in terms of “can I get something for nothing?”, you’re also thinking “am I going to get ripped off?”
The second wave was all about fairness. This time the pod people had talking points that they were mulling over (although where they got them was a mystery to me – the publicity about the actual details of the scheme was woefully limited). The emphasis was on the commitment to get the improvements to public transport into place before the charge came in; a typical poster read “Bus fares are frozen, and then the charge comes in? Sounds fair to me.” This wasn’t as actively repellent as the first phase, but it was extraordinarily weak – what do you mean, it sounds fair to you? What is this imitation of reasoning – are you saying it is fair or not – and if not, why not? Come to think of it, what’s fairness got to do with the timing of the introduction of the charge? There’s no sense in which the benefits gained in the first couple of years offset the costs imposed from that point on. Once again, this “we are ordinary people” approach provokes the very suspicions it’s apparently meant to allay – maybe it sounds ‘fair’ to you, mate, but to me it just sounds like a sweetener… And, once again, the underlying appeal is not to collective benefits or to fairness (despite the language), but to self-interest. Two years benefits upfront, free of charge? I’ll have some of that. What would genuinely sound fair would be “We’ll pay more when we drive at peak times, but we’ll get the benefit when we use public transport” – but that message never appeared.
The idea of actually paying the charge did surface in the third and final stage of the campaign, but yet again the appeal was to individual self-interest. The message here was “I want to [get from A to B quickly]. That’s why I’m voting Yes.”, with examples ranging from getting to the building site on time to putting the kids to bed. I don’t mind paying, the logic runs, because I know that other people won’t want to pay, and so the roads I drive down will be much clearer. Essentially this was the “get the plebs off the road” phase of the campaign. It seems to tap into the same vein of narcissistic fantasy that brought us the remake of Survivors – What if everyone stopped using their cars to get to work except me? Wouldn’t that be brilliant?
This isn’t a full picture of the Yes campaign; there was some publicity which focused on improvements to public transport. More to the point, a lot of the actual campaigning went on by word of mouth, and here the idea that the charge might be paid for in collective benefits did get an airing. Overall, though, the Yes campaign was woeful as well as creepy. What it was trying to get us to do was assent to an additional tax, for the sake of benefits which (by government decree) couldn’t be funded any other way. The question, in other words, was “do you agree to start making a payment you’ve never had to make before and carry on paying it indefinitely, with no guarantee that the scheme won’t be extended or the toll increased, for no reason except that that’s the only offer on the table?” (The TIF was to consist of a £1500 million grant plus a £1200 million loan, a quarter of which would need to be spent on setting up the machinery to administer the scheme. And no, we couldn’t just have the £1500 million.) It appeals to a certain combination of public-spiritedness and submissive ‘realism’: you can say “yes, because I believe the investment in public transport will be worth it, and besides it’s the only offer on the table” or “yes, because I believe we should be encouraged to use our cars less (and besides…)”, but those are arguments for agreeing to a collective tax, arbitrarily imposed, in return for collective benefits. There’s just no way to sell a Yes vote in terms of individual self-interest, and it was pretty shabby of the Yes campaign to make the attempt.
The other thing that struck me about the campaign was the consistency of the voting figures, with one interesting exception. There are ten boroughs within the old Greater Manchester region; the plan was to implement two charging zones, one following the M60 and an inner ring further in towards the centre (not far enough in for my liking, but that’s by the way). Out of the ten boroughs, Bolton and Wigan are entirely outside the M60, and Rochdale almost entirely; these three boroughs presumably have the largest proportion of people who would be completely unaffected by the charge. Bury, Oldham, Tameside, Stockport and Trafford are all crossed by the M60. Manchester and Salford, finally, are divided both by the M60 and by the inner ring.
Here are the voting figures. I’ve given the percentage turnout and the No vote (as a percentage of those who voted). The dotted lines represent percentages across all ten boroughs. (Region-wide turnout: 53.2%; region-wide No vote: 78.8%.) I’ve graphed the No vote because it turns out that there was very little variation in the Yes vote, calculated as a percentage of eligible voters: 4% in total (from a low of 8.9% to a high of 12.8%), with six boroughs within 0.5% of the overall figure of 11.3%.
Here are the same figures, normalised around those region-wide percentages: 90% means ‘90% of the regional percentage turnout/No vote’.
And here are the percentages again, sorted by No vote rather than by turnout.
What do we see? The first thing is that turnout was respectable everywhere (the Wigan low of 45% would be very good for a local election) and better than that in a few places (over 60% in Tameside and Trafford). The second is that the No vote was overwhelming (and the Yes vote miserable) pretty much everywhere: the No vote ranged from 84.5% in Salford all the way down to 72.2% in Manchester. This wasn’t a multiple-choice question or a choice between several candidates: 27.8% of people who voted in Manchester voted Yes, and 72.2% voted No. For the proposal to pass, the vote had to be over 50% in seven out of ten boroughs; it didn’t even reach 30% in one.
Then there’s the correlation of turnout and No vote, which is particularly striking in the third graph: three boroughs had a below-average No vote and a below-average turnout; six had an above-average turnout and an above-average No vote. (Bolton was in between.) Look at the first graph and compare Trafford, Tameside and Stockport (crossed by the M60) with Rochdale, Bolton and Wigan (outside the M60). Outer boroughs: low turnout, relatively low No vote. Inner: high turnout, relatively high No vote. As I noted above, the Yes turnout varied between 8.9% and 12.8%, for an overall average of 11.3%. There was much more variation in the No turnout, which was 41.9% across the area, but ranged from over 50% in Trafford and Tameside to just over 33% in Wigan and Manchester. (Trafford also had an above-average Yes turnout, at 12.5%. I guess they just take voting seriously in Trafford.) There seems to be a definite correlation with geography; it looks as if, where geography made a difference, the difference was both that the congestion charge interested fewer people (lower turnout in outer boroughs) and that those who bothered to vote were more motivated by self-interest (lower No vote in outer boroughs). In short, the geographical patterning of the Yes vote is highly suggestive of an appeal to self-interest, while the overall level of the Yes vote suggests that this appeal has very little power to mobilise.
Lastly, there’s a glaring exception to this correlation: Manchester, the borough covering most of the city centre and hence the only borough, apart from Salford, which is crossed by both inner and outer charging rings. Salford has the record No vote, at 84.5%; turnout was a respectable 57%. Manchester, by contrast, is out there with Wigan: a turnout of only 46%, of whom 27.8% voted Yes. Clearly, the model which explains the differences between inner and outer boroughs in terms of individual self-interest can’t deal with these figures.
I haven’t got an explanation, either for the high Yes vote or for the equally puzzling low turnout. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Manchester (or at least South Manchester) may have an unusually high concentration of people sympathetic to the aims of the Congestion Charge, or of non-drivers, or both. As for the low turnout, Manchester City Council hasn’t changed hands since 1974; the council’s motto is Concilio Et Labore, and it is. Perhaps conditions like that – compounded by the fug of neo-Blairite ex-municipal-socialist hortatory corporate righteousness which has enveloped the Town Hall for the last decade – tend to promote cynicism and disengagement: they’ll do it anyway, so why encourage them? The day the vote came through the Manchester Evening News results page included a poll: “Is the Congestion Charge dead and buried?” When I looked at the page, votes were running 4:1 in favour of “It’ll be back in some form”. White Van Man won’t resist the Future forever. (And a Merry Christmas to you too, Mr Leese sir!)