Who likes a pisshead on the Tube? Not many people, I reckon. Not the passengers in crowded carriages who must endure their loud, intrusive presence in a confined space below ground. Not those waiting on platforms who edge away from their stumbling salutations and unpredictable lurching a few feet from a live rail. Not the London Underground staff who have to deal with boozed up individuals who pose a potential danger to others and to themselves.
The good news is that disruptive drunkenness is generally rare on the Underground. That is, no doubt, in part because the already plastered are often prevented from passing through ticket gates in the first place, but it is also because of the ban on alcohol consumption on all public transport that was introduced by Boris Johnson from 1 June, 2008, soon after he became London Mayor.
His rationale was simple. “I’m determined to improve the safety and security of public transport in London,” he said, and the booze ban was a quick and easy honouring of a bunch of manifesto pledges to that end.
Johnson characterised the move as “broken windows theory” put into practice, though no dedicated additional policing was involved (British Transport Police don’t fall into the orbit of London Mayors anyway). Rather, in reality, the ban was to be voluntarily observed and informally enforced through public pressure.
There was publicity and there were announcements. The late Bob Crow, leader of the RMT union at the time, said the ban was “poorly thought through”, but said he supported the principle of “any measure” that made his members’ lives easier. The aim was to effect a culture shift. Transport for London drew comparisons with public support for the earlier public transport smoking ban.
A “last round on the Underground” party took place the night before the ban came into effect. Six stations had to be closed, four Tube drivers, three station staff members and two police officers were assaulted. Several trains were damaged and had to be withdrawn from service. I attended a Johnson press conference on a separate issue the morning after. He was jovial about the defiant festivities, which mostly occurred on the Circle Line, back in the days when – as Generation X so memorably sang – it went round and round and round and round. “Boris” did not wish to seem a killjoy, like some humourless Lefty, and the rowdy among the revellers had, in any case, handed him the vindication he required.
That is the backdrop to the media kerfuffle over Diane Abbott MP being caught sipping from a can of mojito on a London Overground train last week. Her misdemeanour was reported by The Sun, fuelling a predictable online defence campaign that has had the useful side effect of confirming what a sorry state the Labour Party is in. It is right to stick up for Abbott against the vermin who abuse her for being female and black, but a shadow home secretary (and one time mayoral hopeful) who breaks the law, however trivial the infringement or slim the chance of prosecution, risks weakening her party’s already fragile credibility.
Abbott rightly and wisely apologised. That has not deterred droves of Corbynites from getting off on declaring they #StandWithDiane and snapping themselves on public transport with their own tinned tipples, revealing both their political naivety and the galloping self-indulgence beneath the solidarity pieties. And is there any sight more absurd than the middle-classes trying to act well ‘ard? Hypocrisy is a factor in this too. Had a Tory minister been subjected to the same embarrassment, Abbott’s champions would, of course, be crowing.
The greater value of the incident has been to remind Londoners and others that the city’s public transport booze ban still exists and has done more good than harm. It may be true, as has been quite reasonably argued, that the drinking problem was never all that big in the first place and that very few people have been convicted of the offence of imbibing alcohol while in transit on bus, tram, DLR, Overground or Underground – the mode where, perhaps, the desirability of passenger sobriety is greatest.
But Johnson’s reform was a recognition of the wishes of the majority and has provided a gentle nudge in the direction of increased public transport civility. Would any London politician serious about securing high office recommend ending the city’s public transport booze ban? I doubt it, and that includes Diane Abbott.