Some thoughts on the Evening Standard's coverage of this week's bus workers' strike.
I read the Evening Standard at length on Tuesday night because, during the bus drivers’ strike over wages, public transport was juddering and faltering and getting home after work was even more annoying than usual. Perhaps the delays were thanks to the strike, or maybe it was just standard TFL crappiness exacerbated by it.
Whatever – I was reading it as I do fairly often, and I found the ‘paper’s editorial on the bus strike pretty revealing. “London cannot afford today’s bus strike”, read the headline. You only have to look at how many copies are left on the seats of the tube to know the impact the Standard has on the capital city – that its conception of what “London” is actually carries some weight. If you're not from London, imagine a really high proportion of people read a mixture of the Times and the Daily Mail because it's free.
Incidentally, it’s worth noting how firebrand and tub-thumpy it would sound, in normal media discourse, if a paper said, “The working class can’t afford these poverty wages”. But the Standard’s appeal to local, rather than class identity doesn’t sound weird at all.
Its definition of London tells us a lot about about where the city is being taken. The bus strike was about stopping wild fluctuations in drivers’ pay over different operators. One driver, writing in the Standard’s sister paper the Independent said this had meant his pay had fallen by £2.50 per hour over the last 15 years. At a time when the “cost of living crisis” is a thing acutely felt in London, who exactly is “cannot afford” the bus strike? London, apparently. So if bus drivers are not London who or what is?
Perhaps the answer lies in the numerous property pages, out the next day. Wednesday’s Standard is significantly heftier than normal, because in the middle there are tens of pages of adverts for properties I’m unlikely to ever afford, punctuated only by fatuous articles on the latest property “trends” from property correspondent David Spittles (the trends of gentrification or homelessness never gets a look in), and pictures articles where arseholes show off the expensive architecture of their beautifully designed, immaculate homes (surely these are smuggest people in the entire world).
Many of the properties on sale have probably been dumped on some now demolished social housing, the residents of which have been moved further out of London. Certainly, they’re completely out of reach to the striking bus drivers and the people who most need busses – poor workers who can’t afford the tube. Even if we accept that the property pages are necessarily going to be commercial in nature, the rest of the ‘papers reporting on state-led gentrification and housing poverty has been less than overwhelming, given that these are things that are currently changing the face of a city that it claims to represent, perhaps for ever.
So, the vision of London that the Standard presents is one in which impoverished bus drivers ferry impoverished workers from their far-away homes into the city to clean the toilets and floors of offices. The office workers – perhaps working for the sociopathic “regeneration” industry – are sound in the knowledge that their kids can get to school on time, safe from any uppity bus drivers who have silly ideas about collective action causing what the Standard calls “deep inconvenience”. This allows for their London to function – the London of staggering inequality, obnoxious wealth, homelessness, penthouses, chronic stress and dickhead pop-up shops selling just enough expensive coffee to keep the whole show on the road. On Wednesday’s BBC Newsnight in a discussion about the super rich, the Standard’s editor Sarah Sands showed how in touch with poor Londoners by saying, “I think what’s troubling to people, it’s true, is that discrepancy between wealth, in the end, seems a little bit unhealthy.” Some of her readers have heard about poverty and they don’t like the idea of it.
Londoners don’t have to accept this depressing state of affairs. The Standard has identified the wider significance of the bus strike in the battle to define this city. It’s up to Londoners to reclaim their city and their identity. And that starts by supporting bus drivers in their struggle. If the rave-picket in Camberwell is anything to go by, it could be far more fun than being on time for work.