A candidate to be the next Mayor of London took to the city's streets today to vow he would "run Uber out" if elected -- but organisers of an anti-Uber blockade by taxi drivers didn't welcome his presence.
From 2.30pm, hundreds of London's iconic taxis gridlocked Whitehall, the street lined with government departments and ministries that connects tourist-packed Trafalgar Square with Parliament Square, seat of British government. Drivers' organisations and trade unions led the protest, the latest in a series of global demonstrations protesting that ride-hailing apps like Uber face few of the strict regulations placed on licensed taxi drivers.
As drivers, police, tourists, press and bemused office workers mingled among the stationary taxis, Mayoral candidate George Galloway took up a megaphone and drew a small crowd for his remarks. Wearing his signature black fedora, Galloway announced, "If I am Mayor of London, I will run Uber out!" to cheers from assembled drivers. He then repeated the claim on Twitter.
However, despite his promise of support for the taxi cause, Galloway's presence was not welcomed by the organisers of the demonstration. "We did not invite Mr Galloway," Trevor Merralls, campaign manager of the United Cabbies Group, told me after giving his own speech to the assembled cabbies. "We're politically neutral...this is not about who's the next mayor."
"He's like all politicians," said Merralls of what he saw as Galloway's political opportunism. "He's prostituting himself and he's prostituting on our issues...he's making cabbies into political footballs."
If I'm the Mayor of London I will run Uber out of London. That's a promise. pic.twitter.com/miUJTUoQPE— George Galloway (@georgegalloway) February 10, 2016
Left-wing politician Galloway is something of a fringe candidate in the race to become Mayor of London, but he's a highly visible figure in British politics because of his outspoken rhetoric and chequered past. Currently leader of the left-wing Respect party, he is campaigning for mayoral elections taking place in May, when the current Mayor, Boris Johnson, will step down.
Incumbent Mayor Johnson has publicly backed the taxi industry against Uber, but during his tenure the city's transit authority, Transport for London, has come under fire from cabbies for failing to regulate ride-hailing apps. In a key decision in October, British courts backed TFL's controversial ruling that the app used by Uber drivers to calculate fares does not amount to a fare meter. A meter is one of the key differentiating elements between a licensed, metered taxi and an unlicensed private hire car.
"I will use all the tools that have been used against you," Galloway promised drivers, condemning TFL and calling for further legal action.
As I walked down Whitehall past rows and rows of stilled black cabs, I couldn't help but feel like I'd been here before. Because I had: The scene was identical to similar protests in April 2015 and June 2014. Those scenes have been repeated in multiple cities on various occasions as taxi drivers protest San Francisco-based Uber, which operates in more than 300 cities around the world.
Just this week, there have been demonstrations both for and against Uber in Paris, and a Parisian taxi today made the journey to London to show solidarité with Britain's cabbies.
Today's protest is unlikely to be the last. "Disrupting the public isn't something we take lightly," Merralls told me. But as he assured applauding drivers through a megaphone, "We've been talking and talking and talking [with regulators]...we have no option but to take it to the streets."
The public doesn't seem to fully understand the issues, however. "I don't see what's so bad about Uber," I overheard one office worker saying to a friend as they walked down Whitehall with their supermarket meal-deal lunches in hand. "They're full of s**t", sneered another passerby to a friend regarding the cabbies.
Uber is trying to seduce cabbies to use the app. "We believe black cabs and services like Uber can coexist in the capital," said Tom Elvidge, General Manager of Uber in London. "That's why earlier this week we announced that black cab drivers can use our app to get extra custom with zero service fee paid to Uber for a year. By making the most of new technology we can all improve services for passengers and keep London moving."
Vowing that the drivers' representatives would continue the fight against Uber, Trevor Merralls took to his megaphone to announce, "We're going nowhere." Looking at both the gridlocked streets and the political gridlock, I'd say he's right in more ways than one.