Political heavyweights square off as strike is less than a week away
Political ideologies are taking sides in the phoney war before the first of series of one-day national rail strikes. UK trades unions have called for action this coming Tuesday (21 June) and on two days later in the week. Predictably the left-wing and socialist orientated opposition Labour Party is expected to be on the picket lines next week. The party in government, the right wing Conservatives, remain resolute in opposing what they see as aa deeply damaging course of action that will do harm far beyond the railway industry.
In the red corner, the elected member for York, a city recognised as much for its railway heritage as apple pie is recognised as mom’s best dish. In the blue corner a former transport minister with the level of creditability that few successors have yet managed to match. Rachael Maskell, the Labour member of parliament for York, clashed with Patrick McLoughlin of the Conservatives, who served for four years as the secretary of state for transport, and has since been elevated to the upper house as Lord McLoughlin. The political heavyweights were speaking to the BBC’s Week in Westminster programme, to put their views.
Professional or regrettable
Weighing with both condemnation the government handling of the situation, and with support for workers, Rachael Maskell, the Labour MP for the York Central constituency, did however express some dismay that the action had escalated to a strike call, apparently so quickly.“Talks are the only way that you are going to resolve industrial disputes”, she said. “What we first have to recognise is the sheer professionalism of the workforce right across the railway industry. We are so fortunate and that’s why we’ve got such a safe record in our country. That’s something to be proud of, and it is the people that work across the industry that make that happen.”
Patrick McLoughlin however was less impressed, and felt that the professionalism of the workers was being misdirected into making life difficult for the very people they would call comrades. “Basically these strikes are against people who are going about their jobs and their work”, he said. “Everybody in the country is getting back after what has been two traumatic years suffering from the pandemic, and to now have these strikes imposed without negotiations taking place, it’s almost like ‘let’s just go one strike first and show everybody that we can be awkward, and then let’s hope we can get to negotiations’. It is really, really regrettable.”
Cause chaos for a week
RMT, the union that called next week’s strike action – scheduled for Tuesday 21 June, Thursday 23 June and Saturday 25 June – would say it has been talking to government and rail companies, prior to balloting its members, but was making no progress. Defending that position, Rachael Maskell said that when an industrial dispute occurs, it hasn’t been initiated by the workers. “We must remember that 89 per cent of people who were balloted have voted for industrial action”, she said. “These people, at a time of a cost of living crisis, are prepared to give up a day’s pay in order to make there feeling heard. What we’ve got to recognise is that there has been an announcement – there is going to be quite significant cuts across Network Rail and the rest of the train operators and that’s going to have an impact – clearly on people’s futures.”
Patrick McLoughlin rounded on the tactical battle the RMT have planned, designed, he says to cause maximum disruption whilst minimising the loss to their members. “RMT announce three days of strikes which is actually going to cause chaos for a week, for the travelling public. Not for ministers, not for politicians, but for the people who rely on using the rail service. At a time when the Labour Party puts more pressure on the government to get to net zero, how is this going to help the rial industry overall? How is it going to help the confidence of people use the rail industry to get to work, those companies that are situated around railway stations, the thousands of businesses that are going to be impacted?”
Nationalisation or legislation
The Conservative Party won a substantial majority at the last General Election, in no small measure due to taking seats in the north of England that traditionally vote for Rachael Maskell’s Labour Party. However, despite that swing to the right, Maskell is true to her party’s socialist viewpoint. She believes there is a socialist solution to the current industrial relations malaise in the rail industry. “I believe it would be easier to manage [if the railways were nationalised]. We have a secretary of state for transport [Grant Shapps] who is overseeing many of those train operating companies that have moved into that public sphere at the moment [under the management contract arrangements imposed by the termination of the franchise system], but it is not a direct relationship of the kind that I think would enhance industrial relations. [Under a nationalised railway] you have then got a workforce that is far more flexible across the network. We are still working in silos.
The missiles in those silos are being primed for launch as the countdown to the battle edges closer to zero. Meanwhile the tensions rise ever further. Only today, just a week before the first RMT strike, a sister union – the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) – announced that it would ballot its 6000 members within Network Rail over pay and contract conditions. The possibility is that members from alternate unions could be called out on strike in such a way as may prolong the rail disruption. Meanwhile a further union – Unite – has announced its members will stop work on the London Underground on Monday, coinciding with the first day of RMT action. For its part, the UK government is considering legislation that will force the railway unions to provide a minimum level of public service during industrial action. It’s a move to copy similar legislation already in place in a number of other European countries.