A Man For All Seasons- the anatomy of a train crash

Despite two crushing by-election defeats, and the resignation of his Party Chairman, Boris Johnson remains undaunted. Strutting the streets of the Rwanda South constituency, Johnson insists that support for him is still strong. Elsewhere it looks quite different.

The loss of the Tiverton and Honiton seat is particularly crushing. Both of these seats were pro-Brexit areas, but Johnson’s USP (unique selling point) as their Brexit-boyo has also collapsed. As the economic realities of the Brexit implosion sink in, even the die-hards are going silent.

Not since the John Major days have the Conservatives seen such a collapse. Then, as now, they were a Party at war with itself. The difference is that today the Right rely on Johnson to lie for them, whereas Major never would.

But don’t expect an immediate Leadership challenge. One-Nation Conservatives are in disarray and the libertarian Right know Boris will front all the regressive policies they clamour for, whilst claiming to do the opposite. There are still miles to go before Boris reaches his ‘dump by’ date.

So it is that we can expect more bravura claims about levelling up in an economy that is being hollowed out. Britain will be dressed up as a climate leader while Johnson subsidises the oil and gas industry, grants permission for new coal mining and avoids imposing immediate decarbonisation obligations on construction and production. He will champion the free society whilst criminalising the right to protest and transferring appeal rights from the courts to his own Ministers.

To distract our attention, Johnson needed a struggle he could win. He thought he’d found it in the rail dispute. How wrong he’s been.

The antidote

It isn’t often that someone stands out above the crowd; for honesty, clarity and integrity. If there was an award for doing so it would go to Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the RMT rail workers union.

The way Lynch has dealt with some of the most ludicrous lines of press questioning (and government dishonesty) offers a lesson to us all.

Lynch patiently dismantled each disingenuous claim by government Ministers. Every attempt at media goading has been shrugged off. Each salvo of attacks that would paint rail workers as irresponsible (or Putin’s allies) was quietly refuted by the facts about how long the union has been attempting to negotiate and how reasonable are their claims.

Lynch runs the risk of giving politics and trade unionism a really good name.

Every silver lining…

Sadly, this stands in contrast to Labour’s official response.

For a moment it looked as though the story might unfold differently. Wes Streeting MP took a break from traducing Jeremy Corbyn and threw his weight behind the strike. In a flash, the Leader’s Office we’re onto him. In no time at all, Streeting was apologising to Shadow Cabinet colleagues for having acted politically. It was followed by a general edict instructing Labour MPs not to endorse the strike. Fortunately, some took no notice.

Bland calls for more government involvement in the negotiations won’t take Labour anywhere. Conservative Ministers’ hands are all over the dispute already. According to Mick Lynch, the most frustrating part of the pay negotiations has been whenever they get close to an agreement Management calls for a break, heads off for private consultations with Ministers or government officials, then comes back with proposals much worse than when they’d left.

This is the industrial dispute Johnson hopes to hide behind. Britain may be in deep doo-doo but it doesn’t matter as long as Boris has someone else to blame. Here are the real politics behind the rail dispute. And it is this that Labour needs to challenge.

Sadly however, every time Labour finds a silver lining it seems to go scurrying off in search of a cloud to go with it. Chasing conformity into stupidity does not amount to political leadership. This is the lesson to be drawn from Labour’s limited victory in Wakefield.

Choosing the enemy

So where do we go now? First, we must resist any temptation to compare the 2% pay offer to rail workers with the proposed 10% increase in state pensions.

Of course this is a political gesture. It targets part of the electorate that put the Tories in office. But don’t ignore the number of pensioners living in fuel and food poverty or the knock-on consequences (for both the NHS and the care system) if we overlook them. In any case, the state pension is only £9,000p.a. This is not where the battles should be fought or the money chased.

The old are not the problem. More insidious are the government proposals to lift restrictions on boardroom pay. With barefaced audacity, Ministers made this announcement at the same time as claiming that RMT pay claims are unaffordable. If anything nails the calculated dishonesty of Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ claims, this is surely it.

We can also skip past the distraction of ‘productivity’ objections. The RMT have embraced a raft of changes that improved the services (and safety) offered to the public. What the Union won’t do is agree to changes that would sacrifice jobs and services to prop up shareholder dividends.

Fully automated but unstaffed stations are not my idea of a safe travelling environment. Nor are trains stripped of the staffing levels needed to maintain service standards. This is the mantra Labour must repeat.

Tomorrow’s world: public before private

All rail networks across the industrial world require public subsidy. To radically cut carbon emissions from transport, such subsidies must increase not diminish.

Germany’s introduction of a €9/month transport pass – giving unlimited public access to regional transport systems – shows how to do it. This is what Labour must embrace. It is how you move people out of cars and into (clean) public transport.

Denmark, France, Luxembourg, Italy and other states have their own approaches to delivering such modal shifts. All favour the public over the private and the sustainable over the unsustainable. None put the interests of shareholders and speculators ahead of the public and the planet. Boris’ Britain occupies a completely different political space. Under the Conservatives

Rail bosses take home between £600,000 and £1 million a year. No 2% pay ceiling applies to their managerial self-reward.

The government requires that passenger fares increase, each year, by the retail price increase (RPI). Johnson flatly refuses to allow workers’ pay to do the same.

Throughout the pandemic, the government paid a 10% return to rail investors; an unearned payment to the owners of capital rather than to those who run the railways. It is an amount that could settle the current RMT pay claim, and

Despite roundly condemning P&O’s use of arbitrary sackings and the replacement of staff with unskilled Agency workers, this is exactly what the Tories want to do with rail.

Be under no illusions, the RMT is not embroiled in a simple pay dispute. It is a battle between the interests of untrammelled capital and the rights of organised labour.

Key workers or collateral damage?

The median wage of RMT workers is just £31,000p.a. Throughout the pandemic they were regarded as ‘key workers’; a fleeting recognition that, in any crisis, it is the infrastructure of public services that holds us together. For Johnson’s government, breaking these bonds of solidarity forms an essential counterpart to their plans of stripping parliament of an ability to hold government to account and stripping society of the means to oppose rampant exploitation.

This drift from democracy into kleptocracy requires solidarity politics to be demonised. Only then can a vulture culture of greed strip the carcass of civilised, sustainable life to its bones. This is the bigger struggle behind the current dispute

In throwing its support behind the RMT, Labour needs to show it grasps this.

What the two by-elections tell us is that there is nothing reasonable or credible behind Johnson’s bluster and bravura. The public have seen through it and feel tarnished by its dishonesties.

Johnson may well have become the problem but that doesn’t make Labour the answer. To do so means occupying a bigger, bolder, more principled political space.

And right now, the ‘Man For All Seasons’ occupying that space would seem to be called Mick, not Keir.

Alan Simpson

25 June 2022


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