Sadiq Khan has a problem.
Now I know what you’re thinking: you could easily list a dozen problems from which the current Mayor suffers. Even if I told you that I was thinking of a promise that he’s broken, you would struggle to narrow it down. So let me get to the point.
Sadiq Khan promised that should he become Mayor, Londoners would suffer “zero strikes” and he has failed so spectacularly that he is on track to have the worst strikes record of any Mayor of London.
It is not hard to see how the current Mayor has got here. He made a promise that he almost certainly had no real expectation of keeping. He then showed the transport unions that strikes are an effective way to get what they want, by giving in to their demands during the last set of negotiations. There seems little chance of Sadiq Khan changing tack so these issues are only likely to get worse. That is unless the Government gives him some help.
The Trade Union Bill is designed to reduce instances of strike action. It will mean that strike ballots can only pass with a turnout of 50% or above, and that they will need the support of at least 40% of all eligible union members. This has the potential to be a step forward, but in reality that step is likely to be a small one. It would not, for example, have stopped the dozens of strikes that Southern Rail users have suffered over the last year.
Instead the Government should back the plans outlined in my recent report Struck Out 2: Judgement Day. This report makes the case that the system of industrial relations on public transport is broken and so systemic change is required to establish a structure that is fit for purpose.
In short, the militant transport unions enjoy a quasi-monopolistic position within London Underground and, to some extent on the UK’s mainline rail as a whole. The knowledge that strike action can bring the network to its knees and wreck the commute of millions of people means that it is not a reasonable approach. What is needed is a system that ensures that workers have a means of redress but that takes Londoners and ordinary commuters out of the firing line. There is no reason why rail and Tube users should be collateral damage every time there is an industrial dispute.
Instead my proposal is threefold:
- Strike action should be banned.
- If 50%+1 of eligible union members vote to take a dispute further, they would proceed to Binding Pendulum Arbitration (BPA).
- Under Binding Pendulum Arbitration, London Underground or the relevant Train Operating Company and the union in dispute would both put forward their cases to an independent arbiter or judge. The judge would then choose one or other of the positions without the option of compromising.
The advantages of this would be manifold. As previously stated this system would take ordinary commuters out of the firing line. Secondly, unlike the current system which encourages militant unions to be as extreme as possible, Binding Pendulum Arbitration encourages both sides to be as reasonable as possible. For example if TfL offers a 2% pay increase and the RMT asks for a 10% rise then under BPA the great likelihood would be that the judge would rule in TfL’s favour. So it would make more sense for the RMT to ask for 3% or 2.5%. However, this would reduce the incentive for a union to seek to escalate a dispute beyond normal negotiation.
This would also reduce the likelihood of a hapless Mayor undermining his negotiators as happened with the recent strikes over ticket offices. And it would stop the ridiculous situation we have seen on Southern where commuters have suffered almost a year of strike action because the unions have decided to pretend the perfectly safe system of Driver Only Operation is unsafe. It is time the Government stepped in to save Sadiq Khan from any more of the strikes he promised to end. More importantly, it is time to rescue Tube and rail users from being used as cannon fodder in any more militant union skirmishes. In short it is time to ban Tube and train strikes and replace them with access to Binding Pendulum Arbitration.
Keith Prince is the London Assembly Member for Havering & Redbridge, and a councillor in Redbridge. He is the former Leader of Redbridge Council, a past councillor in Havering, and was a former marketing manager for LBC Radio.