By using Southern Rail strikes as a precept to attack workers’ rights, the Tories have once again put party politics ahead of the people, argues Steve Reed MP
Yesterday parliament voted down a grubby Tory bid to reduce workers’ rights that used the recent Southern Rail strikes as a pretext. Chris Philp, Tory member of parliament for Croydon South, put forward a bill threatening to curtail strikes without a judge’s agreement.
Removing employees’ right to withdraw their labour in a legitimate dispute treats them like slaves. Going on strike is a fundamental human right hard won by the labour and trade union movement over the past two centuries. At different times the Tories have sought excuses to skew the law in favour of employers whose interests they have historically represented. Philp’s latest attempt is nothing new.
The strikes on Southern Rail are deeply unpopular with the travelling public. They have led to weeks of chaos for passengers who have undoubtedly suffered greatly. The fault lies with the Tory government who have egged on Southern Rail to take a hardline position against their own staff, but who stood by and did nothing during two years of service failure under incompetent Southern Rail managers with disruption long pre-dating the recent wave of strikes.
Before the general election Chris Philp and Gavin Barwell, both Tory candidates in Croydon constituencies, pledged support for handing the Southern Rail franchise to Transport for London so the mayor of London could sort it out and better integrate the service with London’s transport network.
Barwell is now minister for London, a position in which he could help deliver on these promises, but instead he no longer mentions them. Philp, too, was silent on the promise he made to persuade local commuters to vote for him. The reason is neither of them are prepared to stand up to doctrinaire transport secretary Chris Grayling who blocked the TfL proposal because he feared London’s Labour mayor would take the credit for sorting out a problem where Tory ministers had failed. The Tories put party politics ahead of the people they are supposed to represent.
Philp’s authoritarian proposal gives us a look behind the Tory mask. Theresa May is trying to weave a post-Brexit narrative of a Tory party on the side of the ‘just about managing’, those in work but struggling to make ends meet. In reality, once the Tories have liberated themselves from the constraints of European Union protections for workers’ rights, they will unleash the full-scale assault they have always dreamed of. Because May does not want the mask to slip, Tory MPs on the government payroll were ordered to abstain on the vote. Philp’s reward – mouthing a question planted by the whips in today’s prime minister’s questions – shows his proposal caused the Tory hierarchy no trouble at all.
Southern Rail passengers are furious about the years of chaos on their rail network. People suffer extraordinary inconvenience and the region is losing investment. The cause is not rail workers but a failed rail policy that puts private companies in charge but makes them accountable to no-one. However bad their service becomes, Southern Rail does not lose income because it is guaranteed by the government. What is needed is a rail service that is accountable to passengers. Mutualisation is a form of public ownership that puts the public in charge. Instead of the unaccountable chaos we see today, passenger representatives and employees would negotiate business priorities that suit everyone not just private shareholders or partisan Tory ministers.
If Philp really cared about making the railways work better he would put that forward in a bill, not launch another predictable Tory attack on employees’ rights.
Steve Reed is member of parliament for Croydon North and shadow minister for civil society. He tweets at @SteveReedMP
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