I address myself directly this morning to the three million people – including many readers – who use the London Underground network; and I have no inhibitions whatever in focusing on these passengers, because the irritation they are experiencing as a result of industrial action is not only disgraceful, but an omen for the entire country as we struggle to come out of recession
If you have been kept waiting, or if your day has been wrecked, or if your colleagues and staff have been unable to make it to the office, then the first and most important thing I should say is how deeply I regret this strike and the inconvenience you are suffering. And if you are wondering why it is happening today, when the Tory party conference is taking place in Birmingham, then I hope the answer is obvious.
This is a nakedly political strike. It has nothing whatever to do with health and safety – nor have the union leaderships raised any such fears in the course of the negotiations.
We need to make some sensible and moderate changes to the ticket office arrangements on the Tube, to reflect the greatly increased use of the automatic Oyster system. We need to take account of the fact that some ticket offices are now selling fewer than 10 tickets an hour. We need to liberate staff to get out on to the platforms and concourses where they can be of most use to the travelling public. We have come up with a way of doing this that keeps a ticket office at every station that currently possesses one – and, remarkably, given the colossal budgetary pressures we face – we are able to do this with no compulsory redundancies. There will be no loss of earnings, and I cannot stress enough that all stations will remain staffed at all times.
This is the package which the RMT leadership now demands is “taken off the table” before talks can resume, while their political lackeys now pretend that I should invite Bob Crow in for beer and sandwiches in City Hall. That is absurd, outrageous and wrong. We cannot reward the bad behaviour of militants whose objectives are plainly nothing to do with the terms and conditions of their members, and everything to do with a political attack on the Coalition government and, to a lesser extent, on City Hall.
If you doubt this analysis, listen to the words of Bob Crow’s number two, Steve Hedley, who has now been arrested on suspicion of common assault following his manning of a picket line during the last strike. He says he wants to build the RMT into a “formidable regional fighting force”, and that he wants to “go on the offensive”. Or listen to the rantings of the former mayor, Ken Livingspart. When he was in office the old newt-fancier in fact proposed a programme of ticket office closures far more draconian than the ones we are currently suggesting, but he seems to have forgotten all that and indeed to have lost all contact with common sense. He has reinvented himself as a creature of the old hard Left, for whom every strike is right and all attempts to restrain public spending are a Thatcherite evil. If you want to know whose side he is on, suffice it to say his office is funded by one of the striking unions.
The tragedy is that there is a growing number of people in the Labour Party – perhaps even Ed Miliband – who believe that they can manipulate industrial unrest to wreak revenge for their electoral defeats. They have an apocalyptic vision of the next two or three years, in which the public sector unions respond to the cuts with wave after wave of debilitating strikes. They see angry shouting Steve Hedley-style pickets at every station, braziers at every street corner, and such general industrial unrest that there is a run on the pound and a broken and dejected Coalition government is obliged to sue for peace and throw its policies into reverse.
And who suffers, as they pursue this nightmarish return to the politics of the 1980s? Not the bankers and the fat cats, who are the ostensible objects of their wrath. Their victims are the ordinary workers of this country, who find they cannot get to work, who lose pay, and whose firms go under as a result of the disruption. How does it help the economy, if the chaos means the Treasury loses the tax revenue it needs not just to reduce the deficit but also to pay for investment in London transport? How the hell can we in London demand more funding from central government for new track and new signalling, when the RMT and the TSSA leadership refuse to accept these modest and greatly attenuated proposals to reform the way ticket offices work?
This strike is irresponsible politically motivated nonsense, and above all it will not succeed. Last month the strikers vowed to paralyse London – and yet 93 per cent of Oyster users made their journeys on that day, whether by bus, overground, boat – or the large parts of the Tube that were running. I am deeply grateful to the London Underground workers who helped to get 40 per cent of the network moving. I am sad for any workers who felt bullied into supporting the strike by the likes of Mr Hedley, and with less than half the union members actually participating in the strike ballot, it is high time the Coalition looked at the law again.
The Tube is a vital part of our transport infrastructure. It carries as many people as the whole of the rest of the national rail network put together. It simply cannot be right that a little over 3,000 people should be able to disrupt – or to attempt to disrupt – the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. The Government should consider a law insisting on a minimum 50 per cent participation in a strike ballot; and in the meantime I hope that the union chiefs, and their political cheerleaders, will come to their senses, come to the negotiating table, and call off a strike that risks damaging the economic prospects of their own members to no good purpose whatever.
The article appears in The Daily Telegraph