Len Duvall responds to Oona’s freedom pass wriggling

by Tom Miller

On of the most important things about Ken Livingstone’s bid to become London Mayor is that he has the overwhelming backing of the city’s Assembly Members.

There has been some concern about what seemed to be Oona’s plan to means test the Freedom Pass, citing Prince Charles as an example of a pensioner who would not need one provided by the state. Now I would welcome it if I did, but I don’t see Mr Wales on the bus much these days.

In the following days Ken’s campaign has highlighted the view she put forward, and perhaps as a result, she is now emphasising that her views were ‘hypothetical’, adding on some extra direness in attacking Ken as a liar.

Which is basically nonsense, firstly because how Ken’s campaign has portrayed this will be how any reasonable person would have interpreted her statements, and secondly because it’s worth wondering why any mayoral candidate would bother setting out ‘hypothetical’ scenarios for the Tories to cut public services with. If she is selected, expect them to use the line “but you said you were OK with this then!”.

Perhaps Ken just assumes that she has more smarts than that?

In my own view, that in itself is a mistake. During hustings she has preferred to talk about vague notions of ‘connecting people to things’ and unrelated parochial stuff like making sure people can afford fridges (we demand freezers!), as opposed to substantial policy.

Global slowdown fridges – connecting people to things in an effort to wipe out knife crime.

Back to my point: Len Duvall has sent out an email pulling her freedom pass behaviour to bits. Not looking good for her campaign:

Dear colleague

Last week I sent out an email setting out the choices that had opened up in the Mayoral selection over the issue of the Freedom Pass.

I said I was concerned that, asked about means testing the Freedom Pass, Oona King had said that there were circumstances in which she would support means testing.

Oona has now written to London Labour councillors describing this assertion as an example of ‘making up stories’ and ‘fibs’.

That’s not true. If we are going to have this debate we should let the facts speak for themselves.

Set out below are the verbatim answers that Oona gave in two hustings that led me to set in writing out the real choice in this selection.

  • 23rd July, Croydon hustings
    Question: The Government is threatening to means test the Freedom Pass. Do you believe it should be means tested?

    Oona King – ‘I don’t want to, but if budgets are tight, money is short, you need to prioritise. I want to help the poorest. That’s why we are in politics, to help the poorest, like my bus policy.. If there is a choice, then I want the money to go to the poorest, not to pay for the richest.. like Prince Charles to go free. My priority is for bus fares to be cut if possible paid for by money from the western extension, congestion charge…’

  • 29th July, Brent hustings
    Question: There has been some talk that the Freedom Pass may be means tested. Are there any circumstances in which you would accept this?

    Oona: ‘There are some circumstances that I would accept saying to someone like Prince Philip or other extremely rich pensioners in London that you can no longer have free travel in London, the average not the poorest pensioner. I think we should extend it onto train companies for example… We have to recognise priorities, for example, the childcare tax credit, I don’t get the same childcare tax credit as someone who earn less than me… I’m a progressive, I’m a socialist, you should be helped, I think you should pay according to your ability to pay and you should be helped according to your needs.

    ‘Ken and I support the freedom pass, he will tell you he never expected to get it… we need to recognise it is an equality issue – if you are rich you get about, if you are poor you don’t. We have to make sure pensioners can get around London and have that dignity in retirement, they need to enjoy life.’

    ‘We have to be more realistic, in this environment when everything is being cut by abolishing, through ideologically driven ways… I will fight tooth and nail against those cuts.’

    ‘But if you are the mayor and you have got less money coming in you need to ensure the average pensioner can have the same experience or better than those richer ones you need to accept means testing.’

    Oona also returned to the issue in the next question: ‘Look at working families tax credit, we couldn’t afford to give it to everyone, it was right we didn’t give it to everyone, we couldn’t give it to Prince Philip or people like me. It was right to do that, no one says it was wrong to do that. Everyone says it was good to have lifted those half a million children out of poverty.’

    ‘Well you can only do that, we don’t have money growing on trees. You can only do that if you target money and people just need to recognise that is the real world. And I would always rather we got money to the people who need it most – and if we don’t we are betraying working people.’

It’s there in answers to ordinary members of the party who asked their questions in the party’s hustings.

We have to be clear in this debate. It simply does not help Labour to have arguments in favour of means testing the Freedom Pass being mobilised in this way.

I welcome the fact that Oona now wishes to change the position she took in these hustings. But London Labour cannot afford to have ambiguity on such important issues when they come up.

Some press reports suggest that the Tory government may be considering a means test for the national pensioners’ travel concession. So we cannot afford to have arguments in London that help that case either.

And if we are not going to do it, why make the case for means testing?

Ken’s position on the Freedom Pass is tried, tested and straightforward. For the right reasons, he will not entertain ideas about means testing it and he won’t concede the territory now that only makes it easier for our opponents in the future. He will work with the boroughs who administer and pay for the scheme to ensure it remains a success. And he will not support a two-tier Freedom Pass where some modes of transport are means-tested and others are not.

The reason I am supporting Ken is because he’s the right person to deal with the politics of the 21st Century, of how we campaign to stop the policies of the Conservatives and LibDems and how we protect Londoners in difficult times.

I’m backing Ken because London needs a tough negotiator, who knows clearly what position to take in London’s interests, who gets the detail and who can be relied on to stand up for Londoners.

Yours sincerely

Len Duvall AM
London Assembly member for Greenwich and Lewisham

Accuse me of spin-doctory, but I think the best thing that Oona could do is admit she has got it wrong, and move on. This just looks absurd.