The picket line at London Bridge station during a strike by RMT London Underground workers. (Photo by Guy Smallman/Getty images)
Artillery Row

Tube strikes aren’t socialist

Why do so many on the Left back poor quality public services?

Today, like millions of other Londoners, I’ll be desperately trying to make my way across town as most of the tube system shuts down thanks to industrial action. In some ways, it’s nice to know the underground isn’t running rather than finding out halfway through your journey as you sweat in a tunnel waiting for a Victorian signal system to usher you damp and lightheaded to the meeting you just missed. 

Conflict with Russia, an energy crisis, spiralling inflation and now widespread industrial strife? More than a few outlets have started noticing the obvious parallels with the 1970s, a decade in which Britain felt like it was slipping into terminal decline. Once again the government is facing off with unions in grim economic circumstances. 

Most on the Left don’t need to ask themselves how they should feel about that — to be in Labour means to back Unite and the rest; it means you support public sector workers, strikes and the struggle for better pay and conditions. But should it? 

Unions are dominated by those directly working for the state

The Labour movement once meant literally that — it was the political manifestation of organised labour, with union members able to vote in Labour elections and serving as fundraisers and foot soldiers that could deliver elections. In the middle of the twentieth century, perhaps 80 per cent of the population could be categorised as working class, with millions employed in extractive or manufacturing industries. The union movement was primarily dominated by powerful industry-specific private sector unions. 

But that picture has drastically changed. First, following the nationalisation of many industries, many unions were effectively negotiating with the state (this was the case most famously with the miners). Following the massive de-industrialisations of the late twentieth century, unions were increasingly dominated by those directly working for the state: NHS staff, teachers, bin collectors, civil servants and transportation workers. 

In 2020 only 12.9 per cent of private sector workers were unionised, but an astonishing 51.9 per cent of public sector workers were union members. Moreover public sector workers enjoy higher wages than their equivalents in the private sector, earning seven per cent more in 2019, and even more when higher pensions are taken into account. On top of all that, public sector workers also have better job security, holiday, maternity leave and other benefits than those in the private sector. 

Is this a union success story? Have unions protected public sector workers from the buffeting forces of economic disruption? No — because this reverses cause and effect. It is unionisation that has been protected within the artificial space of the public sector, whilst it has withered elsewhere. Simply put, public sector unions are effective and widespread only because they are negotiating with the state — and are effectively quasi-antagonistic handmaidens of the public sector. 

I see myself as a man of the Left. Not because I like open borders (I don’t), or think every school should be a comprehensive (a proven disaster), or have strong opinions on how we need to be more accepting about what people do in bed (I don’t care; I just don’t want to hear about it). I’m on the Left because I wish to restrain the power of an increasingly rapacious global capitalism; restore power to communities, civil society and local government; and because I believe in effective, well-resourced and extensive public services available to all. 

Which is why I’m baffled by the reaction of many on the Left to the militancy of public sector unions. Wages are toppling everywhere; the economy is swaying dangerously; the rug is being pulled out from under people of my generation who have dwindling hopes of buying a house, or gaining financial security. Those swiftly vanishing aspirations would be utterly banished for many if this country enters an economic crisis again. 

The already crumbling, sclerotic infrastructure of London is being shut down by yet another day of strike action, which will add a further burden to the lives of millions across the capital. Of course one sympathises with the cause — the mad decision to cut staff numbers who run the mass transit system for the largest and fastest growing city in the country. Especially absurd is the fact that TFL, unlike the vast majority of UK public transport, is largely self-financing — why are tax revenues not being invested into a system so subject to delays? Why (and this is truly baffling) does a centre of world finance not have 24 hour mass transit? 

Clearly there is a tremendous case for modern Conservatives to look to the “Gas and water socialism” once practised by Victorian-era Tory politicians like mayor of Birmingham Joseph Chamberlain. The incredible Victorian infrastructure that we often still rely on and continue to admire, was the product of massive state investment working with the innovation of both the private sector and a welter of associations and universities. Market, state and civil society were mobilised in concert and co-operation towards the common good. 

But this municipal socialism is not just against the grain of a declinist Tory government, it’s just as much at odds with a myopic and libertine Left. It requires public spiritedness, and an ability to see that along with economic redistribution, there must be the creation of economic value through both collective endeavour and individual genius. Further, that this must occur across many sectors. 

Why have we not seen innovation in our public transport?

Public sector unions are part of the problem here. The Left is entirely right to say that there should be good pay and conditions for those employed in public service — but they are mad when they betray the principle of public service itself for the sake of public servants. 

Public services are only as good as the public servants who run them. This means better wages, including at the top, to attract the best and brightest to help improve society. But it equally means being able to fire incompetent workers, and to reform or abolish failing organisations. 

TFL embodies this problem. On the one hand, the dedication and professionalism of so many TFL staff is evident and admirable. Having a large number of staff, even where many processes are automated, introduces crucial redundancies and drives up efficiency. It is vitally important for restraining crime and antisocial behaviour, which is a matter not just of comfort for passengers, but social justice for vulnerable passengers. So much for the good.

But the bad is very bad. Why have we not seen innovation and investment in our public transport? Why is much of the service still lacking lifts, and other means of making it accessible to the disabled? Why are certain lines subject to constant and predictable delays? Why don’t tubes run 24 hours a day, and why are the trains not as reliable as they are in other advanced nations like Japan?

The failure of state investment is a part of the picture, but it is the unions that have stood in the way of 24 hour services and automation. Moreover, even if we grant that the cause for which workers are striking is just, is it wise or proportionate to allow a few thousand individuals to hold our capital to ransom and immiserate millions at a whim? 

The objections are predictable — you will always, always be told that the problem is underfunding; only treat workers well and they won’t strike. As we saw above, they are in fact a privileged set of workers, who are disproportionately rewarded compared to those working in the private sector. I’m not saying we should attack one set of workers that are doing a bit better — we aren’t going to get better public services by treating public servants badly either (though it’s amusing to think when that sort of egalitarian impulse does and doesn’t apply on the Left). 

However, you do have to seriously question the nature of a political movement with Labour right there in the title which chooses to prioritise a small, highly protected and well-off subset of workers above the millions of worse-paid workers whose lives and jobs will be affected by a strike. Is this the future of the “Labour movement”, defending a dwindling set of privileges whilst doing nothing to challenge the underlying forces driving wages down and the cost of living up?

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