There is no general upsurge of industrial militancy in the UK: the latest figures show both numbers of stoppages and days lost to strikes remain low. The cluster of RMT actions – against Southern Railway/Govia Thameslink (now suspended), Virgin East Coast and Eurostar – will not be a harbinger of a new wave of damaging disputes.
Nevertheless these strikes are worrying. They add to a dangerous post-Brexit feeling, particularly for visitors to our country, that things may be out of control. They seriously inconvenience business and public, while arguably creating a security risk at overcrowded stations.
The immediate causes of these strikes are trivial and backward-looking, as was the earlier long-running dispute over late-night Tube trains. Remember that nobody is losing their job, nobody is being paid less. Instead the RMT is quibbling over the redefinition of the role of guards and train managers. In the case of Eurostar, it is disinterring an old issue about shiftwork dating back to 2009.
Behind this, however, there looks to be a clear political agenda. The RMT has never accepted railway privatisation and wants renationalisation. It sees a chance. Such a policy seems popular: in some polls up to 70 per cent of the public agree with it. Jeremy Corbyn and his neolithic cohorts in the Labour Party are already committed to taking railways back into state hands. With Brexit, we may see the end of the European directive which requires a split between track and services and entrenches the principle of open access running. So if disputes can be manipulated to discredit the train operating companies – and Southern’s hamfisted approach may have done this already – there is a real possibility that renationalisation in some form could happen, perhaps even under this government.
This would be daft. The privatisation of the railways was certainly handled badly. The structure we now have is expensive and inefficient, and there is not enough competition even where technically feasible. But privatisation has been a huge success in doubling the numbers of passenger journeys and miles travelled, turning a moribund industry into one with a future. The industry could be radically improved within the private sector if the government set its mind to the problem. Turning back the clock to nationalisation is not the answer.
In a democracy, it is not unreasonable to advocate some form of state control of railways. What is less reasonable is to hold travellers to ransom to pursue this goal on the votes of tiny numbers of union members – about 50 in the Eurostar case, and little over 300 on Southern Railway. Or to pressurise companies by mass use of sickness absence to disrupt business.
The recent Trade Union Act was ostensibly supposed to prevent unnecessary strikes, though it was more plausibly just a cynical attempt to wrongfoot the Labour Party. Certainly many aspects of the Bill were quickly dropped as other priorities intervened. The Act as passed does not seem to have achieved anything in the case of the RMT. Perhaps the government should revisit the issue with a requirement for no-strike agreements in key sectors like transport.