Election cycle – and not talking about cycling

Cycling UK at the Labour Party Conference, 2023. Photo: Abdullrhman Hassona
How do you get politicians to care about cycling? Head of campaigns Duncan Dollimore outlines what Cycling UK’s been doing at the party conferences to convince politicians that more people walking and cycling delivers on their economic, environmental, public health and other objectives – talking about cycling without talking about cycling

In Bournemouth, Manchester, Liverpool and Aberdeen, the question on many people’s lips over the last five weeks has been when will Rishi Sunak call a general election?

It’s been party conference season and Cycling UK has been at the Liberal Democrat, Conservative, Labour and Scottish National Party (SNP) conferences meeting with current politicians, future candidates and advisors, speaking on panels and organising events. Political parties are already focused on the next election and what they would deliver thereafter if in government, so the conferences this year presented a superb opportunity to engage existing and future decision makers and seek to influence commitments in and around party manifestos. 

When, and why cycling matters

The general election has to take place by January 2025, though most pundits predict that the Prime Minister wouldn’t be thanked for and would want to avoid a Christmas or New Year election, so whilst the election could be called at any time, with one option being May next year, the odds seem to be on an election this time next year, with this year’s party conferences potentially being the last before the next election, hence their importance for charities and NGOs like Cycling UK seeking to push their agenda. 

But when people are worried about the cost of living, inflation and many other pressing issues at home and abroad, you can’t just speak to politicians about cycling and expect this to float to the top of their agenda. That’s why most of our conversations in recent weeks, and our advocacy and influencing work up to the election, has been, and will be, focused on how getting more people moving more actively, cycling or walking, helps tackle the problems which politicians know they have to grasp.

It's Guardian journalist Peter Walker’s miracle pill argument. The NHS spends £6.1bn a year treating obesity-related ill-health, around 30% of UK CO2 emissions are accounted for by road transport, and the annual cost to drivers of congestion on our roads is around £6.9 billion. Now imagine if I could sell you a miracle pill which simultaneously tackled public health, environmental, congestion, and air quality crises, whilst supporting both national and local economies, with a return on investment of nearly £6 for every one pound spent!

Of course, that miracle pill is investment in active travel, which Dame Sarah Storey, Greater Manchester’s Active Travel Commissioner, often refers to as a ’public health intervention’, and her predecessor in that role Chris Boardman, now Active Travel Commissioner for England, frames with the challenge “Name any crisis: active travel helps”. 

So, our challenge at conferences, to move cycling up the political agenda in the run-up to the next election, was and will continue to be how to talk about cycling without talking about cycling – the answer being, to talk about the benefits, and how they deliver the wider policy objectives of each political party. 

Manchester, and a plan for drivers! 

Huge thanks to Darren Henry MP for Broxtowe and Conservative Friends of Cycling, Dame Sarah Storey and the Dutch Ambassador Karel van Oosterom for supporting our conference cycle and walk event in Manchester at the Conservative Party Conference.   

The Conservative Party Conference bike ride

It was great to start four days at the conference so positively, but it would be dishonest not to admit that the Government’s decision to launch ‘the plan for drivers’ the same day dampened the mood. Many would say that we’ve had a plan for drivers for decades, and what we now need is a plan for more and better transport choices, and Cycling UK’s CEO Sarah Mitchell explained our concerns on the limitations of the Government’s saying that: 

“When Beeching took an axe to local railways in the 1960s, we were robbed of the freedom to choose how we travel. The government’s reported ‘plan for the motorist’ feels like history repeating itself. 

“We need a holistic plan for how people can travel – not a plan that zooms in on one particular mode of transport. A plan that gives us the freedom to choose how we travel, maximising our ability to opt for healthy, cheap and convenient options. 

“Better public transport, and safer ways for people to cycle and walk are entirely compatible with driving. Focussing on one way of travelling is like trying to complete a jigsaw with half the pieces missing.”   

We will shortly set out our views on the plan for the motorist in more detail, however, suffice to say at this stage that the plan and the narrative around it are based on misleading assertions about drivers being attacked, driving being vilified, councils telling people where they can travel and when and where they can shop by policing their lives through 15-minute cities, and the Prime Minister’s suggestion that 20mph limits are against British values. The plan refers to actions including measures to restrict councils' ability to set 20mph limits, and to limit the use of schemes designed to restrict through traffic in residential areas, in recent years often labelled as low-traffic neighbourhoods (though the one I lived in 20 years ago in Newcastle was just referred to as a cul-de-sac back then!)

Dave Walker's take on the 'plan for drivers'

In the meantime however, it takes about two minutes to add your name to the 6000 who’ve already used our online action to ask the Prime Minister not to U-turn on low-traffic neighbourhoods and 20mph limits, so please click and send if you haven’t already. 

Take action

Fortunately, we were able to have positive meetings whilst in Manchester, and to set out our concerns around the plan for drivers to the Minister for Roads and Local Transport, Richard Holden MP, at our fringe event with the Conservative Environment Network (CEN), which you can watch on YouTube

Liverpool, and Labour Streets 

It was brilliant to be able to collaborate with Living Streets, Labour Walks & Cycles and SERA, Labour’s Environment Campaign, to organise a fringe event - Labour Streets: Solutions for Net Zero, Public Health and Inequalities.  

Standing room only in a packed marquee, there was particular admiration from the audience for the political bravery shown by Lee Waters, Deputy Climate Change Minister for Wales, particularly around the introduction of a default 20mph speed limit in Wales. You can hear my arguments below on the benefits of investment to get more people walking and cycling, and why we need a plan for more and better transport choices, not one purely for the motorist. 

The positivity and enthusiasm from the Labour Streets event overflowed into and around the Albert Dock afterwards, with panellists, some of the audience, and various MPs including Fabian Hamilton and Ruth Cadbury joining the conference bike ride or walk jointly organised by Cycling UK, Labour Walks & Cycles and Living Streets, with much needed support from two Cycling UK affiliated local groups, Asylum Link Merseyside who provided multiple bikes for the ride, and Aigburth Community Cycle Club, whose volunteers led the ride.

Chatting with Fabian Hamilton MP on the Labour Conference Cycle

We can’t build and develop relationships with politicians and decision makers if we report back on every conversation we have, but amongst the meetings we had in Liverpool was one with Shadow Minister for Local Transport Simon Lightwood MP, whose brief covers cycling and walking, and it was fantastic to start a dialogue with him around what Cycling UK hope to see in the next Labour manifesto.

Bournemouth, and politicians arriving by bike!  

The Liberal Democrats are owning the art of the political stunt at the minute: one of their candidates appearing onstage in a wetsuit, with a surfboard, to highlight issues with sewage dumping, being one example from Bournemouth. But from a cycling perspective, it was great to see party leader Ed Davey MP, spokesperson for energy, climate change and transport Wera Hobhouse MP, and many others arriving at conference by bike, which set the tone for an avalanche of positive meetings, including with Wera. 

Aberdeen, and the SNP conference

Cycling UK’s policy and campaigns manager in Scotland, Jim Densham, attended the SNP conference, having conversations with both Westminster and Holyrood politicians on transport issues. But as Jim’s also off to the Scottish Greens Conference this weekend I’ll leave him to update separately on both of those shortly.

What comes next?

 And after attending conferences, what comes next?

Well, we’re now officially in election campaign mode, and busy preparing our Cycling UK manifesto.

We’re also having numerous follow-on conversations post-conferences, and will be continuing our work to influence polices and commitments in advance of the election.

And at some point soon, we’ll be asking for your support to amplify our message!