London mayor Sadiq Khan has just given us a foretaste of a Labour government by capitulating to the RMT and averting a tube strike at the last moment by, to borrow Nye Bevan’s phrase, stuffing the rail workers’ mouths with gold. That, at least, is Boris Johnson’s assessment of the 11th-hour agreement to avert the walkouts. Johnson is right, except is it really much different from what has been going on for years under his and other Conservative governments?
It wasn’t Labour which gave us train drivers on £65,000 a year – far more, in some cases, when you add on overtime. That puts some train drivers in the top five per cent of highest earners in population.
As for rail workers as a whole, in 2021 they earned a median of £43,747 – a quarter as much again. How they did they get there? Because rail companies have been taking the easy route out of industrial action: capitulating to the unions and then going to the government to beg for more subsidy to help pay the extra wage bill, and the government meekly gives in. The government pretends not to be involved – they’re private companies, you know, and so none of ministers’ business – yet it is taxpayers who end up being stung for excessive wage demands. In the year to March 2023, taxpayers spent £11.9 billion on operational subsidies (i.e. not including investment such as HS2) for the rail industry. In the same period, the industry earned only £9.2 billion in ticket sales and from freight operations.
What did Johnson do to force the rail industry to end its reliance on the taxpayer and trim back excessive wage demands? He did make noises, while mayor, about automating the Underground, thus cutting out drivers and their bolshie unions for good.