Bernard Ingham: Why we must stop unions holding us to ransom

LIFE is full of surprises. I was enjoying my fish and chips the other day when my host handed me a slip of paper. It had been inspired, he said, by the coincidence of another London Tube strike and his daughter qualifying as a doctor.

Militant misery: Chaotic scenes in London as strikes cripple transport systems and hold the public to ransom.

LIFE is full of surprises. I was enjoying my fish and chips the other day when my host handed me a slip of paper. It had been inspired, he said, by the coincidence of another London Tube strike and his daughter qualifying as a doctor.

The paper, compiled from the internet, compared the qualifications required, training and pay and conditions of a Tube driver and a medic.

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Whereas the driver needs GCSEs in maths and English (with some mechanical or electrical knowledge an advantage) the doctor must have four A-grade A-levels, including maths and science, and perhaps the hint of a bedside manner. The driver’s training lasts 18 months; a doctor’s five years.

Doctors get no pay during training compared with the driver’s £20,000 to £30,000. Their starting pay is £22,636 compared with a driver’s £35,000. After five years the driver gets £50,000 to £60,000 for a 35-hour week; the doctor £45,000 for a minimum of 48 hours.

A Tube driver cannot work for more than five days without a break. Doctors can be required to slog away for 12 consecutive days.

And, of course, drivers have the right to strike and hold London to ransom. Doctors have no such right and would do themselves enormous harm if the BMA, their union, were ever to try to acquire it.

Now, I am the first to recognise that Tube drivers provide an essential service and could rapidly fill a hospital ward, assuming that all serious risks have not yet been engineered out of the Underground system.

It must also be acknowledged that longer-term doctors have, thanks ironically to Gordon Brown, much greater earning potential, at least for now, though the drivers are working on it.

I also have serious reservations about the attitude of the BMA to the revelation that 6,000 lives are being unnecessarily lost because of inadequate experienced manning of hospitals at weekends. You would have thought that representatives of those who have signed the Hippocratic oath would be queuing up to end such a scandal rather than quibbling about resources.

Nonetheless, the drivers show where a readiness to screw the public for all they can extort can get you. This means that the Government has not gone far enough by any means with its latest effort to curb the unions.

As a former public servant for 24 years, I see no reason whatsoever why public employees should have the right to withdraw their labour, subject, of course, to proper arrangements for determining pay and disputes.

Nor do I believe they should be able to interfere with the orderly running of society. For that reason, I would ban all parades and demonstrations on public roads and preserve the right to protest by concentrating demonstrations in London, for example, at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park.

But to return to my host’s slip of dynamite. The last thing I want to do is to hold down wages unnecessarily as distinct from clamping down on extortion.

An employer should have more regard for his workers’ productivity and loyalty just as a labourer should be worthy of his hire.

The relationship is all too casual these days.

But my host’s little piece of paper irresistibly reminds me of the legendary teacher who set out to show his pupils the emptiness of egalitarianism. He told a class that was very keen on the concept that he would in future average out their marks so that everybody ended the week on equal terms.

As the weeks went by, the average fell steadily as those at the top saw little point in trying and those at the bottom even less need to make an effort. Then came the day when the bottom fell out of their marks and he failed the entire class. That, he explained. is where egalitarianism can get you. It is against human nature.

So far as I can see the four contenders for the Labour leadership are as blissfully unaware as Nicola Sturgeon and her 56 naïve SNP MPs of where their blessed egalité will get them.

It also seems equality can embarrass them. MPs generally are in a singularly weak position to object to their 10 per cent salary increase (which will have to last a bit) when their pay rose by only two per cent during the last Parliament compared with a five per cent rise in public sector pay and a 10 per cent increase across the economy.

Do they really believe in equality? Indeed, do they believe in anything? July fish and chip lunches can raise awkward questions.