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The Demonisation Of Uber - Just Another Brexit Tale

24/09/2017 20:25 BST | Updated 25/09/2017 10:38 BST
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The demonisation of Uber is a parable of Brexit Britain. Of the 40,000 drivers the company currently has driving for it in London, where its license has just been revoked by Transport for London (TfL), the vast majority are migrants and/or from an ethnic minority background, which married to the fact they have dared compete with those doughty sons and daughters of Thatcher, otherwise known as black cab drivers, has ensured the company the status of low hanging fruit when it comes to taking a stand against deregulated capitalism.

With its drivers commonly depicted as unwashed migrants and potential rapists on the prowl, the racial undertone to the campaign against Uber has been impossible to avoid. It is a generalisation every bit as offensive as the depiction of your average black cab driver as an unreconstructed racist who stopped going to West Ham or Millwall because they started signing too many 'coons and Pakis' - though in my experience the latter stereotype is closer to the truth than the former.

On the question of safety, Uber drivers have been atrociously calumniated when the service the company provides is every bit as safe, if not safer, than black cabs. With Uber the car can be tracked via the app from the beginning of its journey to the end, the driver is more easily traced due to the fact the booking and payment takes places online, and the door to door pick-up and drop off negates the need to be walking the streets late at night trying to flag a cab down, or waiting in line at a long queue at a taxi rank.

Back in June, the London Evening Standard ran a story on the number of sexual assaults and other attacks reported on London's transport system. The stats revealed made for alarming reading. Specifically, we learn that "according to figures obtained under Freedom of Information rules, there were 6,057 violent and sexual offences on the capital's railways, tube trains and stations in 2016, compared to 5,137 the year before. When it comes to sexual offences in particular, between 2015 and 2016 they rose from 1,251 to 1,449. Compare this to Uber with 32 reports of sexual offences committed last year. Of course one reported sexual offence is one too many, never mind 32, but when compared to the tube or buses, women are many times safer taking Uber.

Neither black cabs nor other private hire cab companies are in a position to take the moral high ground vis-à-vis Uber when it comes to women's safety either by the way, not when in 2016 there were 122 allegations of rape or sexual assault made against their drivers.

The reality is that with its decision to revoke Uber's license, TfL have made women in London less safe, what with the service Uber provides and also the 30% difference in fares between them and their black cab counterparts. Many on medium to low incomes will now find themselves forced to rely on public transport late at night, with the attendant risks this entails for women travelling alone. But as long as black cab drivers get to enjoy the monopoly which they believe should be theirs by right this is a price worth paying. Yet having said that, looking on the bright side for a moment, at least when you take a black cab around London you're guaranteed to lose weight, as the fare for a typical journey means that you can't afford to eat for two days afterwards.

The petition drawn up to protest the decision to strip Uber of its license in London has, at time of writing, already attracted more than 500,000 signatures, while a call for a boycott of black cabs is also gaining traction. Both are evidence that TfL and the Mayor's office have completely misjudged public opinion on the issue, swayed no doubt by the determined anti-Uber campaign waged by black cab drivers and assorted superannuated leftists, trade unions, and others.

The GMB's stance of calling for the company's license to be revoked over workers' rights is a remarkable example of the cure being worse than the disease. Those 40,000 Uber drivers who are now set to lose their livelihoods will soon have no rights at all, much less a wage by which to feed themselves and their families, however paltry that wage may be. "Grub first, then ethics," Bertolt Brecht reminds us with the kind of simple yet profound logic conspicuously absent within the rarefied bubble in which the your average trade union bureaucrat resides. It proves that instead of the call for workers to join the union, in 2017 the call should be for the union to join the workers.

In calling for the punishment of Uber as the ugly face of deregulated capitalism and neoliberalism in our time, the company's detractors have chosen to confront the symptoms rather than cause of Britain's low wage and low security economy, which in sum is the entrenchment of Thatcherite economics, slavishly supported by a right wing populist tabloid press in whose pages migrants and minorities are routinely castigated as fifth columnists and a threat to 'our way of life', whatever that means.

That monument to British nationalism, Brexit, has just claimed its latest victim in the shape of Uber - not the company but its drivers, thousands of whom in London are now suddenly faced with the challenge of securing alternative employment in the most expensive city in Europe.

If this is progress, I'm a banana.