Former rail minister gives an impassioned view of this week's strike

If Labour won’t disown the rail barons set to cripple Britain, it’s no longer the party of working people: Former rail minister TOM HARRIS gives an impassioned view of this week’s strike

Britain’s railways are a public service. They exist to make life easier for the passengers who use them.

But that is an alien concept to the trade union leaders who want to hold the network hostage. For them, this taxpayer-supported industry exists only to provide cash, job security and pensions for their members. To hell, they think, with people trying to get to work, to a hospital appointment, a job interview or to visit relatives.

As railways minister under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, I worked closely with the rail unions. It was my job to negotiate hard with them as well as with rail bosses to secure the best deal for passengers.

Yet that era of relative industrial peace and co-operation has long come to an end.

In recent months, a festering combination of unrealistic pay demands and a chronic public-funding squeeze have created a perfect storm — and now we are all about to pay the price.

The strikes announced by union barons this week are the worst since the network was privatised in 1989. They threaten to bring railways to a standstill when they are inflicted on June 21, 23 and 25.


Cynically calculated to cause the maximum damage by taking place on those alternating days, the strikes will effectively mean that the rail network is off-limits for a week, once staff shift patterns are factored in.

Chillingly, more strikes are promised by the union barons if their demands are not met.

The echoes of the 1970s, when Britain was ground to a halt by militant union bosses, are all too clear.

Indeed, one railway union leader is now promising a Summer of Discontent — an echo of the Winter of Discontent of 1978-79, with its picket lines, blockaded factories, rubbish piling up in the streets and corpses left unburied.

Commuters form large queues for buses outside Victoria Station during the morning rush hour as the London Undergound services are severely distrupted due to industrial action on Monday

For its part, the Labour Party has utterly failed to condemn this industrial militancy.

Let me be clear — and I speak as a former Labour minister. The party needs to understand that it’s either on the side of the passengers or the unions. Those who sit on the fence have taken a side — the wrong side. Labour is supposed to be the party of working people.

In practice, that does not mean defending intransigent and bullying unions inflicting carnage on railway passengers. It means defending working people’s right to get to work.

And it’s not as if these unions all speak for Labour anyway. The most hardline, the RMT, was kicked out of the party as far back as 2004, after it was found to be in breach of Labour’s rules by having affiliated to a rival far-Left party.

The RMT showed no loyalty to Labour: why on earth should Labour show any loyalty to it?

Tom Harris who was parliamentary under secretary of state for transport from 2006 to 2008

At its core, this is an old-fashioned dispute about pay and conditions. The RMT wants the Government to guarantee that there will be no compulsory redundancies — even though the industry has to plug a £2 billion funding gap and after taxpayers forked out a huge £16 billion during lockdown to keep the railways operating without passengers. (Those passenger numbers, by the way, still haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels.)

Separately, the RMT union is demanding an astronomical pay rise for its members of 11.1 per cent.

No matter that rail workers are already paid more than public sector workers — an average of £44,000 a year compared with £37,000 for teachers and £31,000 for nurses. And that’s before you count their gold-plated pensions.

These strikes were announced before serious negotiations with the employers had even begun. And that betrays the real motivation of the union leaders: to create political problems for the Government by causing chaos on the rail network, rather than look after their members’ interests.

Commuters enter Liverpool Street station as a Tube strike by RMT Trade Union severely disrupts most of the London Underground lines in London on Monday

It is, quite frankly, a scandal and, once again, the victims will be ordinary passengers.

Of course, the union leaders themselves don’t have to worry about the cost of living. Manuel Cortes, chief of the white-collar TSSA, took home more than £120,000 in 2020, including over £18,000 in pension contributions. The RMT’s former boss, the appropriately named Mick Cash, trousered more than £160,000 in 2020, including almost £40,000 in pension contributions.

These hefty salaries don’t prevent their recipients from holding extreme Left-wing views, however. RMT president Alex Gordon is a lifelong Marxist and senior member of Britain’s Communist Party.

Another senior RMT official, Steve Hedley, was suspended by his union after saying he would ‘throw a party’ if Boris Johnson died from coronavirus. He was later reinstated.

As the Mail has previously shown, several of his RMT comrades appear to have shown worrying pro-Russian sympathies, though it must be said that the union has recently — and belatedly — insisted it does not support Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.


So what can we actually do to stop these strikes from happening in future?

Renationalisation is not the answer. The state can never match the investment, budget-planning and good management practices offered by the private sector.

Yes, the unions — like many on the Left — would prefer to see our railways back in the public ownership, but not because this would make the network more efficient. On the contrary, Government ministers, under huge public pressure and scrutiny, are far easier negotiating opponents than the hard-nosed managers of the private sector.

Want proof? Look no further than my native Scotland, where Nicola Sturgeon’s administration nationalised the ScotRail provider in April this year. This was meant to herald a new age of transport in the SNP’s Caledonian utopia. But the results, so far, have been entirely as I and so many others predicted. Within days, the unions announced an all-out strike in support of their latest pay claim.

People wait at bus tation after 4,000 subway workers went on strike over job losses, disagreements over working conditions and pensions in London on Monday 

Instead, I have another modest proposal. For a year, I was a member of the advisory panel on a major Government review of the railways headed by Keith Williams, the executive chairman of Royal Mail.

During the review, I urged civil servants to include a commitment to so-called Minimum Service Level Agreements (MSLAs). In other words, I want to see the railways recognised as the essential public service they are: used by police officers, health workers and others vital to saving lives.

If these people are prevented from going to work, the consequences are devastating.

New legislation would oblige the unions to provide at least a skeleton staff on strike days, so a minimum service would still operate during disputes.


This wouldn’t mean that the right to strike would be curtailed but that passengers’ needs would be put before trade unions’ right to make people’s lives a misery.

These reforms were promised in the Conservative Party’s manifesto at the last general election — won, you’ll remember, by a thumping majority.

So they enjoy a democratic mandate — and yesterday, transport committee chairman Huw Merriman called for the law to be passed and the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said the Government remained ‘committed’ to it.

Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT), union pictured at the RMT headquarters in Euston

Ministers could have passed this legislation already, but they hoped the unions might adopt a more responsible approach that would render doing so unnecessary.

Such optimism has proved fruitless. The unions’ self-interested eagerness to embark on ruinous strikes has exposed them for what they are — and taught ministers that being reasonable and patient doesn’t work with these people.

Taxpayers and passengers are already paying through the nose to sustain the railways. Why should they be forced to pay even more in terms of misery and inconvenience?

The unions have shown their true face. Now it’s time for the Government to take a stand — or we really will all be heading back to the 1970s.

  • Tom Harris was parliamentary under secretary of state for transport from 2006 to 2008.

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