The pilot of enterprise

Neil Kinnock is fighting for freedom in Europe's skies, and does not miss the election. By Simon Calder
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The Independent Travel
For many, the most poignant moment of the 1992 election was the speech that Neil Kinnock made on the steps of Labour's headquarters in Walworth Road. At 5.30 in the morning after the election night before, the defeated leader summoned reserves of passion that had been largely concealed during the campaign. Cut to 1997, and you meet easily the most relaxed figure in British politics.

That is because Mr Kinnock is living and working in Brussels, devoting himself to the cause of the European traveller.

After the inevitable post-election resignation, he was dispatched to the European Union and the not-too-attractive-sounding post of Transport Commissioner. Presumably, I suggest, that involves decreeing that we must all catch the same size of trains?

"No, it doesn't mean catching the same-sized trains. I wish it meant more people are certain to catch trains." Continental Europe is ahead of Britain in promoting alternatives to the car, but even in Germany - where rail travel throughout the country is virtually free at weekends - the percentage of journeys made on public transport is pitifully low.

This month, though, Mr Kinnock has been more concerned with planes than with trains. April has seen the completion of the "third package" of the liberalisation of the civil aviation market, and the introduction of total cabotage. In simple terms, any European airline can fly anywhere it wishes within the EU. "We've been moving towards that since 1993, or indeed longer than that," Kinnock says, "and there's been a deal of success. There are, however, still challenges."

That is putting it politely. For some European countries, state airlines have always been symbols of national virility rather than profit-making providers of a service. On the day when the new aviation rules came into effect, staff at Air France went on strike in protest at what they regard as a threat to their livelihoods.

Alitalia, Iberia of Spain and the Greek airline Olympic have long been shored up by taxpayers. A job in a state-owned airline has traditionally been regarded as among the cushiest of postings, with low expectations of productivity and high expectations of earnings and pension rights. The taxpayer shells out, and air travellers get a worse deal than they should. The former MP for Islwyn aims to stop all that, with a free-enterprise zeal that was not heavily promoted in Labour's 1992 manifesto. How does driving airlines headlong towards privatisation square with his socialist traditions?

"It feels completely comfortable. In the area of civil aviation I've never discovered a justification for taxpayers' money being used to sustain airlines. Commuter rail - yes, it's a fundamental social necessity. But I've got no difficulty at all in being an avid pursuer of the withdrawal and denial of state aid and the promotion of commercially viable, competitive airlines that offer a fair deal to the air-user."

Any government that wishes to provide state aid to an airline must show Mr Kinnock that the money is to pay for restructuring (for example, paying off surplus staff) rather than to cut fares. Air France, for instance, is not allowed to undercut the prices offered by Britain's leading airlines. Indeed, the former Labour leader has kind words for British Midland, provider of John Major's campaign plane.

"British Midland has always been a private company to which, I think, tribute should be paid, because they undertook an adventure. It has worked to the advantage of the air traveller. They provided the first real breakthrough with competition in the air."

Liberalisation in Britain's skies is championed in Brussels as the example of how to get aviation right. EasyJet, Debonair and the Irish airline Ryanair have established themselves as high-profile, low-fare carriers providing British travellers with the best-value in Europe. If you wish to fly between London and Glasgow, the lowest fare is pounds 43 return; the same distance from Frankfurt to Berlin is at least pounds 108.

But if Britain is getting aviation right, its surface transport system is, according to Mr Kinnock, "in danger of dying on its feet. The current system cannot continue forever, and we should now begin the search for more sustainable, more efficient and fairer systems."

In particular, the Commissioner says, frequent car-use should be penalised. "The car is a source of independence, of freedom. Indeed, in many ways it's the definition of freedom. If you don't believe me, ask anyone in east and central Europe. But it is wrong and inefficient that the person who uses their car a couple of times a week, and commutes to work by public transport, should have to pay the same for their use of the road system as someone who never goes much past the garden gate without a car."

If you want to wind up a hitherto relaxed figure, try suggesting that such restrictions might not be popular in what Mr Kinnock's erstwhile political opponent called a "car-owning democracy".

"Mrs Thatcher's statement, made 10 or 12 years ago, has been outdated by events. The real challenge to modern society is not to resolve between having the car and not having the car - unrealistic options - but to discover how we can retain the convenience and freedom of the motor car and make that compatible with the freedom of movement."

As he prepares to be a spectator at an election for the first time since 1966, does Mr Kinnock have regrets about being in Brussels rather than Islwyn? "No. I think I can make an effective contribution to raising standards of life - and standards of freedom, too"n

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