“The working-class is back,” announced RMT general secretary Mick Lynch to a bunch of nodding dogs in the Clapham Grand and all over Twitter. “We’re not just back as an idea, we’re back as a movement.” Oh really?
The launch of Enough Is Enough, a campaign set up by far left political party Left Unity – an oxymoron in such circles if ever there was one – was also graced by speeches from more of the kinds of people who spent much of the 1980s in the upstairs rooms of pubs in Islington quarrelling about whether the revolutionary moment had arrived or whether the proletariat should wait until Tuesday.
Some of them were the same people. Jeremy Corbyn, surprise surprise, sent a message of support. They and their successors never learn and have no wish to. Their mindset is hard wired with an endlessly repeating programme of “hope” followed by “betrayal”, followed by decades of denunciations of everyone except themselves and what-might-have-been articles for Red Pepper. For some, a life of piety and umbrage is enough.
Meanwhile, in another backwood of the political forest, another fairy tale is being spun. The fantasy world constructed by Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss is every bit as fanciful and every bit as framed to feed the fixed, unswerving appetites of an equally submissive audience – in its case, the national membership of the Conservative Party.
Truss, surely already picking out sterner furnishings for Number 10, has been painting a pretty picture of a Britannia Unshackled from whatever the Tory media deems to be impeding our charge to greater greatness this week. Usually, it is some dragon that Conservatives have already proclaimed slain, perhaps as far back in time as those pub quarrels in Islington, but have dug up and lined up for putting to death once more – “union barons”, trendy ideas about sex and vegetables, foreigners interfering with our freedom and so on and on and on.
The difference between these parallel pantomimes is that the cast of one is in a position to put its threats into effect and that of the other one is not. As Lynch trills tunes of glory about “synchronised” strike action and his fans pretend this would bring down the government, both Truss and transport secretary Grant Shapps are speaking candidly about using legal means to force through measures Lynch and others are resisting, and to limit union power.
Are they bluffing? Put it this way, they already have a long way to row back. And while public sentiment about the strikes is finely balanced for now – perhaps partly because working from home has made more jobs strike-proof – that could change if the idea takes hold that Lynch and the RMT executive have ambitions beyond securing a better deal for their members. If there are votes in clipping Lynch’s wings, the Tories, their hold on power fragile, won’t hesitate to wield the clippers. And likely next Prime Minister Truss won’t want to compromise her Margaret Thatcher tribute act within weeks of taking office.
None of this bodes well for London. Although unequal, the power struggle could drag on for months. Other unions can be expected to look to settle with Network Rail and train operators, but the RMT seem minded to go on and on. The same might be true of its dispute with Transport for London. Today’s Tube strike was called, according to the RMT itself, because TfL did not show it the Department for Transport’s draft proposal for a funding settlement, which is still being haggled over more than two weeks after it turned up at around 10pm on a Friday night.
The idea that TfL’s bosses would share a confidential government document with the RMT in a middle of an industrial dispute with them as well HMG is optimism of the same surreal order as imagining a general strike would make everything right for the UK’s lowest paid. But such is the dreamland the RMT’s top brass appear to inhabit.
Far from further enfeebling perhaps the most visionless and incompetent national government of all time, Mick Lynch and his colleagues are providing it with pretexts for maintaining its remote control of TfL and further eroding the autonomy of the Labour Mayor, both of which would be bad for RMT members. In industrial disputes, there is a time for union action, including strikes, and there is a time for grinding out a settlement. It is far from clear that the RMT has much idea about the latter.
Things can change and might yet do for the better, but it is hard to shift the feeling that the “summer of discontent”, far from bringing about a capitulation by the government, the train bosses and TfL, could all too easily help to usher in a long cold winter of transport service decline in the capital, and leave one transport union in particular, so full of fighting talk now, scratching about for weasel words to conceal the reality of a defeat for not only its members but for London as a whole.
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