News that London Underground staff plan to stage three 24-hour strikes over the introduction of the late-running Night Tube service has seen the mayoral race front runners clocking on.
Conservative Zac Goldsmith has again depicted Labour’s Sadiq Khan as a screaming red lackey of what he pointedly calls “Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party” and a creature of trade unions, some of which backed Khan to become his party’s candidate. Khan has compared the number of Tube strikes under the Tory mayoralty of Boris Johnson with the total under his predecessor Ken Livingstone: 35 plays 16, according to Khan’s maths. “Every Londoner who wants fewer days lost to strikes needs a Labour mayor,” he says.
Is Khan right? What do his figures prove? What useful role can any London mayor play in soothing industrial relations on the Underground?
The comparison Khan makes is imperfect because the contexts for strike action have changed. It helped Livingstone that his time at City Hall was marked by substantial fresh investment in the capital’s transport network, notwithstanding his losing battles with Gordon Brown over ill-fated public-private partnership financing schemes. Johnson, who saw them off, has had responsibility for Underground upgrades during a period in which his fellow Tories upstream have kept on writing cheques but tightened the purse strings. There have been squeezes and cuts. The unions, unsurprisingly, have resisted.
Even so, Johnson’s performance has been unimpressive: sometimes provocative, sometimes indifferent, sometimes weird. His 2008 election pledge to negotiate a no-strike deal was a real oddity. His aversion to sitting round any sort of table with elected leaders of a key transport system’s workforce to discuss anything at all has not waned. He initially reappointed two Tube union officials Livingstone had put on the Transport for London board – Tony West from ASLEF, and Patrick O’Keefe from UNITE – but former TUC general secretary Sir Brendan Barber is its only human link with organised labour now.
Tories and trade unions are not natural allies and Johnson’s accusations of playing politics won’t all have been wrong. Yet his one visible input into Underground disputes has been to seek political advantage from them. That preference too endures: with Goldsmith trailing in opinion polls, Johnson has denounced Khan as a “tool of ASLEF” whose response to the latest strike plan shows him to be “all over the place.” But Khan, by sharp contrast, might see it as his place to make a useful contribution to improving the staff-management mood.
This shouldn’t mean taking a personal role in complex negotiations: neither the unions nor London Underground’s managers would want or be likely to benefit from that. Rather, it would mean encouraging creative compromise and fostering a more constructive atmosphere in which the demanding problems of Tube expansion and financial realities can be addressed. That won’t be easy, but having good union connections could assist a Mayor Khan. They didn’t do Livingstone any harm. He had his rows with the unions – famously so with the late Bob Crow of the RMT – but his political background meant he understood what preoccupied them and how they worked.
The prospect of a Mayor Goldsmith is less encouraging. You don’t have to agree with the Khan campaign’s impolite claim that Goldsmith is a “serial underachiever” divorced from real life to know that his experience of union culture and how to grapple with it is limited. Asked on BBC Radio London during the Tories’ candidate selection contest if and how a mayor should intervene, he argued for more involvement in principle and, in keeping with his interest in direct democracy, suggested that negotiations be relayed to the public live. It’s a novel notion, but would it help produce better results?
A lot of nonsense has been talked about the Underground, its tensions and its challenges. Labour politicians up in arms about Johnson’s ticket office closure programme ignored the fact that Livingstone had drawn up a more drastic one. Tories highlight economic damage done by Tube stoppages but howl against measures to reduce road congestion, which costs London businesses mountains more. Delusions about “driverless trains” recur.
The government has plans to restrict the power to strike but their value to London is questionable. November’s Docklands Light Railway stoppage anticipated their limitations as a curbing device and the whole “crack down” approach ignores the positive connection between union representation and staff morale. The London Underground workforce is a credit to the city. Its unions can be stroppy, but its bosses can be too. Both are integral to the Tube’s future and, in the end, must co-operate to make that future bright. Sadiq Khan is the candidate best equipped to help bring that about.
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