A woman with two dogs allowing the delayed Euston train to depart without her because she’d booked a reserved seat (presumably canine-friendly) on the next one, whenever it might arrive; a woman whose long day had begun at the crack of dawn travelling from Manchester to Glasgow and back again – just two commuters I spoke to yesterday following the cancellation of my own direct express. Relocated to another platform, I had to journey to Manchester Piccadilly and then change, missing a train by a matter of minutes and then hanging around for half-an-hour for the long-awaited ride home. The ticket inspector on the first train informed me I should have waited for the next, as my ticket was apparently invalid on this one, what with it being a different company (God bless privatisation and deregulation, eh?); however, I was fortunate to be spared a Jobsworth; perhaps she was sympathetic to the palpable desperation of passengers to get back before the drawbridge came down and strike action got underway. An absence of a ticket inspector on the second train made life easier, considering both my experience on the first and the fact the empty seats on the second seemed to be either reserved for the Invisible Man or exclusively for those of a disabled persuasion; carefully extricating the reserved sign from the top of the seat, I breathed a sigh of relief on a sparsely-occupied carriage and hoped my presence would pass by unnoticed; mercifully, it did.
With the dates pencilled-in for the rail strike made public a week or so before they came into being, I imagined I myself would be safe from any travel disruption, though I was maybe pushing it a bit choosing to journey home from a weekend away less than 24 hours before it all kicked-in. Anyway, I made it in the end, albeit an hour later than planned. Others might not be so lucky in the days ahead. As history has shown us – whether or not the ‘within living memory’ element counts to anyone under-40 – industrial action taken by one workforce has a habit of triggering a chain reaction so that each public sector union enters into a competition with others to see who can extract a sufficient volume of blood from the management stone. Cost-of-living crises tend to spawn such situations, so perhaps it’s no surprise we find ourselves where we are following two years of exceptional circumstances, not to mention a decade of austerity and underinvestment.
Where the railways are concerned, of course, the fact British Rail is now a distant memory has left us in a different predicament to that which anyone old enough to have lived through the 1970s can recall; a caller on an LBC phone-in pointed out the differences early on Tuesday morning, going viral on Twitter and bringing her points to a far wider audience than that which ordinarily tunes-in to LBC phone-ins. She referenced the £4 million in tax payers’ money that kept Northern Rail afloat in 2014, £36 million of which found its way into shareholders’ pockets; she referenced the fact numerous rail firms paid out £1 billion in shareholders’ dividends in 2019 whilst simultaneously raising fares by 36%; and she referenced the fact that in 2021 – after the Government had stepped-in to prop-up the train companies when so few were given dispensation to travel by rail during the pandemic – the Network Rail CEO took home over three times the Prime Minister’s salary, with his company still paying £20 million of dividends to shareholders as it gratefully accepted a £11 billion rescue package. A natural consequence of privatisation we’ve now lived with for 30 years or more, yes – but always worth stating as Ministers shy away from doing likewise.
When even the likes of Peter Hitchens can find himself in an unlikely alliance with the likes of Jeremy Corbyn when it comes to the re-nationalisation of the railways, it’s not so easy to dismiss the proposal as a left-wing fantasy; but rail strikes were a routine occurrence during the era of British Rail, lest we forget – the most significant one taking place at the beginning of 1973, several months before the Three Day Week; the tactic resurfaced during the notorious Winter of Discontent at the end of that troubled decade, but every other public service seemed to be striking then, so the effects of it can easily be swallowed-up by memories of the collective inconveniences endured by the general public at that time. Thanks to Mrs Thatcher implementing a variation on the legislation Barbara Castle proposed (and the Labour Party bottled out of) a decade earlier, trade unions no longer have the kind of clout they possessed 40 or 50 years ago, yet – as happened with the fire-fighters’ unions in the early 2000s – they retain the ability to disrupt the public and shame the Government when their actions are so unusual that they receive the kind of coverage they were denied in the 70s and early 80s, when such events were so routine that few batted a weary eyelid.
The fact is that the 24-hour news services of the 21st century are largely unaccustomed to such scenarios, and therefore report this sort of story with the same hysterical fervour that they greet each and every development in current affairs. An unintentionally hilarious down-the-line interview conducted by Sky’s Kay Burley with Mick Lynch, Secretary-General of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (or RMT to the layman) was a case in point; Burley – she’s the one who led a birthday conga through London bars when the capital was in ‘Tier Three’ lockdown at the end of 2020, you might recall – furtively pressed a calm and composed Lynch what his nefarious plans would be should bussed-in agency workers attempt to cross said picket-lines; she even excitedly evoked the 1984/5 Miners’ Strike, as though every placid picket-line outside a railway station would suddenly erupt into a re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave. Lynch received Burley’s silly attempts at egging him on with the contempt they deserved and she responded by behaving as though he had committed a hate crime against her. It was a telling exchange that said a great deal about where we are – whether or not those employed by privately-owned rail companies can be viewed as public sector workers anymore.
At the same time, the BBC News online headline declared ‘Huge rail strike will cause misery for millions’, yet I don’t remember a similar one decrying the policies of the Government a year or two ago that caused far more short-term misery for millions (and far more long-term damage) than any storm-in-a-teacup industrial dispute probably will. Yes, a rail strike coming with petrol prices at a 17-year high (courtesy of taxes, that Ukraine business and, not forgetting, the emotional blackmail of a ‘Green’ intervention in domestic oil supplies) is a major disruption to the general public, forcing commuters to turn to a public transport system decimated by a decade-long ruthless pruning of services, yet it was inevitable some unions would revert to strike action when their members are feeling the pinch as much as anyone else. And, after a year or more of working from home, the return of the workforce to a dependence on bus or rail services to get them to the workplace on time was the perfect moment to hit – from the perspective of the unions representing such services, anyway; it was as inevitable a move as the post-pandemic cost-of-living crisis itself.
Boris has issued a scaremongering, pre-emptive warning that the country ought to prepare itself for a ‘summer of strikes’, whilst various Labour MPs have entered into point-scoring by joining rail workers on picket-lines (presumably keen to show they haven’t entirely lost touch with ‘ordinary people’ in the midst of their Identity Politics obsession). The Government appears determined not to bow to the rail workers’ demands for fear that other unions will also do an Oliver Twist and ask Sir for more, and they will be acutely aware that public anger with unions can swiftly be redirected towards Ministers should the strikes spread. Either way, it’s yet another disruption to already-disrupted lives and, whether or not one’s sympathies are firmly with the strikers, for most it’s one more pain in an increasingly painful arse.
© The Editor