The war for the future of London’s transport system

By Daniel Randall, London Underground worker and RMT union rep

A comprehensive audit of Transport for London (TfL)’s finances and governance, conducted by accountancy firm KPMG, is imminently due to make its initial recommendations.

The review was mandated as one of several stringent conditions of the bailout package the government supplied in June, to allow TfL to continue operating after its fare revenue collapsed due to the pandemic. On London Underground (LU), TfL’s largest subsidiary, passenger levels dropped by 98%.

The terms of reference for the review give clear signals about its intent. The language is somewhat coded, but the code is easy to crack. The review is tasked with identifying “opportunities to deliver further efficiencies in the short term in relation to operating costs” – that is, to make cuts – and with identifying “opportunities that alternative operating models could bring over the longer term, including consideration of structures and governance.” In other words, the government want the review to recommend cuts, and probably privatisation.

Currently, TfL is effectively administered by City Hall, London’s municipal government. Mayor Sadiq Khan chairs the TfL board. Whilst there is already privatisation under the TfL aegis – services like the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) and London Overground are privately operated, as are London’s bus routes, and services like cleaning across TfL are outsourced to private contractors – TfL as as whole remains a publicly-owned transport authority.

Alternative models of operation and governance for TfL could only really mean one of two things. It could mean that the Westminster government takes direct control of the operation of TfL, taking it out of the control of municipal government, and, in effect, “nationalising” it. Whilst perhaps unlikely, this is by no means impossible. Despite their party’s ideological commitment to the private sector, the Tory government has taken some private Train Operating Companies into partial or full public ownership. This kind of direct takeover would be bad news for TfL. There is a strong democratic case for TfL to be administered by municipal, rather than national, government, and a TfL run directly from Grant Schapps’ Department for Transport would undoubtedly be remade in its new Tory owners’ image.

The other possibility for an alternative model of operation and governance would be to extend private sector involvement in the running of TfL, either privatising it wholesale, or parcelling off and privatising bits of it. The case against this should be self-evident. Part-privatisation of the Tube has been tried before: in 2002, the New Labour government imposed a “Public Private Partnership” on LU, selling off the operation of LU lines to private consortia. The scheme was beset by problems – Metronet, one of the private consortia, collapsed in 2007, and the PPP fell apart entirely in 2010. But the catastrophic failure of this experiment in Tube privatisation may not be sufficient to prevent the Tories from having another go.

As far as cuts are concerned, many TfL workers might look around them in bemusement at what there could possibly be left to cut. The past decade has seen three major restructures and cuts programmes two specific to LU (“OSP” in 2010/11 and “Fit for the Future” in 2013-16) and one pan-TfL (“Transformation”, in 2017/18), which saw thousands of jobs slashed. But bosses and Tory politicians determined to deliver “further efficiencies” will undoubtedly find something else to axe. Already, workers report managers in their departments commencing “headcount reviews”. Bare bones staffing levels could be rendered even barer.

To understand why TfL and LU were so acutely vulnerable to being plunged into an existential financial crisis by the collapse of fare revenue, one must understand the recent history of changes to its funding regime. TfL historically received a substantial subsidy from central government, totalling nearly £1 billion. But the 2015 Tory government announced a policy to incrementally run that subsidy down, and in 2018 it was scrapped entirely. This meant TfL became the only metropolitan transport provider of its type in the world not to receive state subsidy, and left it much more dependent on fare revenue.

The terms of reference also conjure the spectre of driverless trains, every anti-union ideologue’s panacea for removing the alleged ability of Tube unions to “hold London to ransom.” The review aspires to “workforce modernisation, and exploring the feasibility of extending driverless operation from the DLR to other lines which are already automatic.”

For now, at least, this is much more of an ideological artefact than an immediate technical threat. The DLR was built as a driverless system from the start, with the requisite infrastructure and signalling systems. It is almost all open section track, meaning trains can be easily accessed in the event of any safety incidents. And even with all this, DLR trains still have a member of staff on board.

Implementing driverless operation on LU’s deep-lying underground lines would require massive signalling and stock refurbishment, involving an enormous upfront financial outlay that would postpone any potential savings until well in the future. The idea of driverless trains as any sort of immediate money saving mechanism is, on its own terms, patently nonsensical.

In an interview on 6 July, Boris Johnson suggested the implementation of driverless trains should be a condition of any future government funding for TfL. He posed this explicitly in terms of liberating London from being a “prisoner of the unions”, making clear that driverless trains rhetoric has far more to do with attacking organised labour than it does to do with saving money. Even Andy Lord, the LU Managing Director, has made clear that LU management does not want to implement driverless trains and has no intention of doing so. Indeed, LU has recently given unions a guarantee that, contrary to some rumours and initial draft designs, the new stock on the Piccadilly line, the next line due for an upgrade, will be built with drivers’ cabs installed.

Distant though the actual threat of driverless trains may be, the ratcheting up of the rhetorical posturing around it is an indication of what’s at stake. The Tories’ project here is not merely about reshaping the administration of public transport in London for the sake of financial efficiency, but a naked, class-war hostility to a unionised workforce with a history of militancy. This is a government with a policy commitment to bringing forward new laws to further restrict transport workers’ right to strike. If the Tories win this fight, not only will the wider public suffer by having to deal with the likely decrease in quality and safety resulting from cuts and privatisation, but bosses across the economy will be embolden to launch similar attacks on their own workforces.

With the current funding bailout due to expire in October, the DfT’s plan is undoubtedly that any further funding package will be tied to implementation of the recommendations of the KPMG audit. This gives TfL workers’ unions a short window to gear up for a fightback. A modest start was made on 15 July, when the four main TfL unions, RMT, Aslef, TSSA, and Unite, held a joint rally via Zoom to oppose any potential cuts. Since then, Aslef has launched a ballot of its LU membership, due to close on 17 September. 150 RMT reps and activists met via Zoom on 7 September, with a strong consensus emerging for RMT to launch its own ballot.

Our unions cannot afford to wait until cuts are announced and then fight a reactive battle. We have to get out on the front foot. RMT wrote to Grant Schapps on 21 July, seeking assurances that the government’s review will not recommend cuts or privatisation. Those assurances have not been forthcoming; that should have been the starting gun for a dispute and preparations for industrial action ballots. With the prospect of cuts now even nearer, the situation is more urgent still. Meeting the arbitrary thresholds required by anti-union legislation will be a challenge, but the alternative to attempting to rise to that challenge is capitulation.

The red-line principle of any dispute must be total opposition to any and all cuts. Already, there is widespread speculation amongst TfL workers about where exactly the axe might fall. Such speculation is of limited usefulness; we would do better to focus on building determined opposition to all cuts on principle. That must involve opposition to cuts by stealth; jobs cut via voluntary severance or natural wastage are still cut. The workload increases for those left behind, and a future worker is deprived of a relatively secure, relatively well-paid job. If the TfL pension scheme is attacked, the attack must be resisted, even if bosses agree to protect conditions for existing staff and only worsen them for new entrants.

Creative thinking and democratic direction from the rank and file will be necessary to ensure any industrial action doesn’t consist merely of token protest strikes, but is designed to have the maximum impact and put the maximum pressure on the employer. There will be some understandable unease about key workers striking during the pandemic, but the solidarity for the Tower Hamlets council workers’ strike showed that essential workers can take large-scale strike action and build public support. And, bluntly, the simple choice is between some disruption now if we fight, and the ravaging with cuts, and potential selling-off, of transport services if we fail to do so.

While strikes and other industrial action are a central, irreplaceable part of any fight to resist cuts, it must be supplemented by a community campaign which takes up public transport as a social issue, a class issue in the broadest sense. Disabled people’s campaigns, passenger advocacy groups, youth and student organisations, pensioners’ organisations, and others must coalesce, not simply as cheerleaders for TfL workers’ strikes, but as democratic stakeholders in a broad campaign which organises political lobbying and direct action The “Hands Off London Transport” campaign, which organised action against ticket office closures and job cuts following the announcement of the “Fit for the Future” restructure in late 2013, can provide some inspiration here.

Crucial to such a campaign is the positive vision it promotes. Resolute opposition to any and all cuts is necessary, but not sufficient. The campaign must be for something, too, and take the opportunity to develop a sophisticated workers’ and passengers’ plan for a properly funded, publicly owned, democratically administered, carbon neutral public transport system, as an environmental and social good, and a social right.

That vision should involve radical demands for a new funding regime, based on ring-fenced taxation of the businesses, including in the banking and finance sector, which rely on the operation of public transport to move their workers around and allow the creation of their profits. The Federation of Small Businesses estimated in 2017 that a single day’s strike on the Tube “cost” the London economy £300 million. Another way of interpreting that statistic is that Tube workers facilitate the generation of £300 million every day, just by turning up to work. The economic impact of the pandemic and the shift to homeworking will have undoubtedly impacted that, but with Tube passengers levels quickly rising and with more people returning to the workplace, business will again begin to rely on TfL services. There is no reason why they should not pay for them.

Such a campaign could be taken into the wider labour movement, including the Labour Party. In particular, Sadiq Khan, the Labour Mayor of London, must be held directly to account. While Khan is not responsible for the Tory policy of abolishing TfL’s central government subsidy, he is responsible for how he chose to respond. He uttered barely a whisper of protest about this, until essentially forced to do so by the emergency situation created by the pandemic. Instead of facing down Tory demands for cuts as part of their June bailout package, and appealing to Londoners to support him in defending their transport system, he caved in.

Under his mayoralty, outsourcing has continued to run rampant on TfL, with outsourced cleaners, catering workers, security guards, and others facing hyper-exploitative conditions and second-class status compared to their directly-employed workmates – and all this despite the national Labour Party’s warm words about ending outsourcing in authorities they administer. Even now, the idea of supporting labour movement resistance to the Tories’ plans is clearly utterly alien to him. Instead of supporting unions’ embryonic efforts to mobilise a campaign, Khan has instead convened an “independent” review into TfL’s finance and governance, staffed by transport sector fat-cats and senior bankers.

Transport workers of all types – cleaners, station staff, train and bus drivers, maintenance engineers, and many, many others – have kept London moving throughout the pandemic, putting ourselves at personal risk to ensure an essential service for other key workers was maintained. Our proposed reward for that contribution looks likely to be cuts, attacks on our terms and conditions, and, potentially, privatisation.

If we resist that, and plant a flag for a different vision of public transport, we are, as the American Marxist writer and activist Hal Draper put it, “guaranteed nothing except the honour and dignity of fighting for a new and better world.” But as the old labour movement axiom that the late Bob Crow, the former RMT general secretary, was fond of repeating says: if you fight, you may not win. But if you don’t fight, you’ve already lost. That principle should guide us now.

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