I seem to remember a mordant song, to the tune of Going Underground by The Jam, that complained of the smell, the crowding, the tramps, the chewing gum on the seats, the damp – and above all, the delays. Well, I thought it was unfair then – and you don’t hear people singing that song today. Since 2008 there have been massive reductions in delays. We achieved a 40 per cent cut in Tube delays in the period to 2012, and are well on target to achieving a further 30 per cent cut.
We have more trains, better signalling – and the trains run faster than ever before. We are blasting on with a fantastic programme of improvement – air-conditioned carriages first on the subsurface lines, and then on the deep ones. We are extending the Tube for the first time in 15 years, with the link out to Battersea, to say nothing of Crossrail, and we are moving towards ever greater automation.
"A small minority of union activists and leaders have tried to hold the city to ransom by resisting every change"
London Underground will never again buy an old-fashioned train with a cab that requires a driver to sit there the whole time: the new Piccadilly Line trains will allow staff to move down the carriages, as they do on the Docklands Light Railway. Transport for London is leading the world in automated ticketing – and we are now the biggest contactless payment retailer in the world, as more and more people switch to paying by bank card. It goes without saying that we are carrying more people than ever before – about a quarter more passengers every day than eight years ago.
All these changes have been delivered by the staff of the Tube. They have done a superb job. Most of the workforce has understood that the technological changes are great for the travelling public and that they are right for the Tube: there is no point having staff sitting behind plate glass in booths when ticketing is done electronically.
Almost everyone understands that changes in technology must mean changes in working practices. Many new jobs are created, but some are done differently, and some not at all. The trouble is that there has been a small minority of union activists and leaders, who have abused their position and tried to hold the city to ransom, by resisting every change and by using modernisation as an excuse for industrial action.
We have had strikes that have achieved absolutely nothing – except to inconvenience Londoners, to damage the economy, and to cost many hard-working Tube staff their pay during the period of the strikes. To make matters worse, these strikes have very often been triggered by the stubbornness of a tiny number of workers, so that we have sometimes had the Tube services severely disrupted after fewer than 20 per cent of the relevant workforce had voted for action. That is absolutely ridiculous, and so it is high time that the Government has brought forward some sensible measures to deal with these militant excesses.
The Bill before Parliament today will do something to tackle picket-line intimidation; it will end the system whereby union contributions are simply sluiced out of the member’s bank account; it will attempt to tighten the rules that allow workers to be full‑time trade union representatives.
Above all, the Bill being proposed by Sajid Javid will bring in thresholds for the ballots for industrial action, so that you can no longer have a wildcat strike triggered by a tiny minority of workers. The key point is that when it comes to essential public services, the strike action must be supported by 40 per cent of the relevant workforce, and there must be at least a 50 per cent turnout.
That is not remotely draconian. Yes, of course we elect politicians on lower turnouts, and we have no thresholds in democratic elections; but we are talking here about services that are vital for the daily lives of millions of people. There are plenty of other cities that have some kind of restrictions on the right of mass transit workers to go on strike – and in New York, land of banned by law. If this Bill’s protection had been in place, it would have stopped 19 of the past 26 strikes on the Tube.
Of course, it will not stop trade unions from playing a constructive role in modernisation, or from withdrawing the labour of their members. But it will greatly help two sets of working people – the travelling public, and the majority of workers who have often rejected the strike, implicitly or explicitly, and who just want to get on with their jobs.
Now is the time for the great vested leader to take on the vested interests of the union barons – and do something for the workers.