Bernard Ingham: Time to end unions' cynical power game

THE British trade union movement has come full circle. It was established to improve the condition of working people and to prevent them from exploitation. Now it just exploits them, even threatening their livelihoods.

A quiet London Bridge station as a strike by train drivers on Southern Railway, in a dispute over driver-only trains, crippled thousands of services caused misery for hundreds of thousands of passengers.

And their creation, the Labour Party, under Jeremy Corbyn, enthusiastically – and to its utter shame – supports vested interests who won’t run a railway.

I’m afraid I cannot put the latest shenanigans on Southern Rail more simply or fairly than that. It is all a disgrace to the trade union movement. It cannot go on.

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Readers will know that, having said all that, I am not rabidly anti-union. I was brought up in the movement. My grandfather was a Labour pioneer and my father a weavers’ union official and later a Labour councillor for 14 years. The likes of Sir Philip Green sadly show that unions are still needed.

For 30 years I voted Labour, admittedly increasingly reluctantly after my experience as a labour correspondent – in practice, a strike reporter – and civil servant in the Department of Employment.

But it was the rampant, power-mad behaviour of the unions – long before Arthur Scargill’s insurrection against the state – that drained me of all sympathy for what the Labour movement had become.

Now we find Crown Post Office workers and private sector airlines staff taking it out of the public. For them, Christmas is not the season of good will to all men but for visiting their venom on them in the hope that they will blame the employer and, where public services are involved, the Government.

It is frankly a cynical political game that has been played over and over again, especially at holiday times, and is at the root of the current troubles on Southern Rail. The union hopes the Government will force the company to settle because of the impact on Tory voters south of London.

In all this I find it hard to excuse rail and postal management as distinct from the airlines who, enough said, are up against Len McCluskey. Up and down the country – and not least in the NHS – we know that management is not up to much these days.

But the Post Office’s job is complicated by the fast development of communications technology. It is no use us moaning about the closure of Post Offices when we increasingly send messages and even Christmas cards electronically instead of by letter.

Southern has a frightful record for punctuality, but how can you run a reliable railway on the most congested tracks in the country when you know guards are only too liable to go “sick” in lumps to stop driver-only trains, which were introduced elsewhere 30 years ago? It is claimed that the RMT is actually paying them to stay away from work.

The Rail Safety and Standards Board says driver-only trains are a safe form of operation. Why, it is even claimed that Mick Whelan, the Aslef leader, agreed to them five years ago.

Against this background, you can be sure that the disruption we are seeing today will continue as and when the unions think is the most promising time for forcing the Government to bow the knee. That the Government must not do.

When Margaret Thatcher drastically reduced strike action after the wild excesses of the 1970s, she did not outlaw it. Nor did she lift the protection of union assets from claims for damages. She made it more difficult to withdraw labour and take secondary action and virtually eliminated flying pickets.

Strikes are now rare in the private sector, so why should the public sector be dogged by them? After all, the police are banned from striking. Yet they do not carry millions of passengers to and from work every day. Unlike the medical profession, they are not primarily responsible for the nation’s health.

Now all sorts of wheezes are being advanced for protecting the public from predatory trade unions. Only one thing will work: define a public service and ban strikes in them forthwith.

We shall then see whether Labour, assorted nationalists, Liberal Democrats and the Greens are with the people or their enemies. Merry Christmas.