The week before a General Election is the most nerve-wracking stage in the political cycle. We are all absorbed in that futile game of trying to work out what the result will be. Part of the effort involves contemplating what events might be having an impact that the media is missing. The media is, after all, rather focused in on… itself. Who is, or isn’t, taking part in a TV debate or an interview? Who got booed? How much did the interviewer interrupt? Was the interview a “car crash”?
One factor that may annoy people enough to influence how they vote (or whether or not they bother to vote at all) is the train strike. The Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) is holding a strike on the South Western Railway (SWR). It concerns new trains due to start running next year. SWR wants drivers to operate the doors at each stop to save time. The RMT wants the guards to close the doors. Strikes for 27 days have already brought disruption to hundreds of thousands of passengers. Those coming into Waterloo from such places as Bournemouth, Southampton, Exeter, Bristol, Reading, and Portsmouth find many trains have been cancelled and those that are running are severely overcrowded. The full route map of misery is here. Happy Christmas.
It is has become rather tricky to identify marginal seats these days. But in the home counties, where the hard-working commuters of middle England are trying to get on with their lives, there are surely quite a few.
According to the Rail Safety and Standards Board, Britain’s rail safety record has dramatically improved since the advent of driver-only operation. Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, denies that safety concerns are a valid reason for the strike. He says:
“This is plainly a strike for politics and no other reason. Plunging millions of working people into chaos to try to manipulate a democratic election is a new low, even for Jeremy Corbyn. A majority Conservative government will, if elected, introduce legally-binding minimum service requirements for railways during strikes to reduce the disruption that union wreckers can cause. The depths of Jeremy Corbyn’s desperation to win this election and hold onto power of the Labour party has been revealed. To plunge millions of people, just trying to get to work or home to the kids, into chaos in an attempt to manipulate the outcome of the election is an appalling new low. This strike is a taste of things to come if Corbyn takes power. Strikes will become common place across the economy and ordinary workers will be unable to go about their daily lives.”
For decades, the Labour Party has sought to distance itself from trade union militancy. From Neil Kinnock with the miners, to Ed Miliband with the teachers, there has been an effort to sound equivocal. Something about urging “both sides” to compromise and negotiate. But Jeremy Corbyn has spent his life looking around for picket lines to join. Under his leadership Labour’s message is of angry solidarity. Labour is “on the side” of pretty much any strike going. Even on behalf of train drivers earning £70,000 a year for a four day week.
“It’s always been a pleasure to work with the RMT…I hope in the future we can work as closely as possible together, and take the fight to the Tories, and win a Labour government…Together, we can…remove this Conservative government.”
Then we have the role of the unions as Labour paymasters. The RMT has given the Labour Party, or Labour MPs, £303,000 in funding in the last five years, including £50,000 to Corbyn himself and a further £9,125 to his constituency party.
Most of the country is not being disrupted – although it should be noted that West Midlands Trains has also been hit by strikes. Yet the strength of feeling of those who are disrupted will be significant. It might be enough to spark the curiosity in many to discover the motive for the strike and the Labour Party’s backing for it – and to conclude both to be unjustified.
While Labour proposes to “repeal anti-trade union legislation” to make strikes easier, the Conservatives are pledged to give commuters greater protection from such disruption.