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From The Socialist newspaper, 28 October 2020

Mayor and government compete to attack London transport: fight for no cuts!

Transport union RMT has won a big victory on the tube - and announced strikes in two other Underground disputes, photo Petr Kratochvil (Creative Commons)

Transport union RMT has won a big victory on the tube - and announced strikes in two other Underground disputes, photo Petr Kratochvil (Creative Commons)   (Click to enlarge)

Jared Wood, RMT union national executive committee - London transport representative (personal capacity)

At the time of writing, Transport for London (TfL) workers - and London passengers and car users - are caught in a war of words between London's Labour mayor and the Tory central government.

The reality facing us seems to be that while the two protagonists will dispute responsibility, they could both settle on a strategy that makes attacks on TfL workers' jobs and conditions, and broader attacks on London's working class to boot.

The funding gap that TfL is facing due to a collapse in fare revenues is huge. Tube use is still only 34% of pre-Covid levels, and bus use is about 50%.

The model of funding TfL through fare revenues alone, withdrawing government subsidy, was always going to fail. But with the Covid impact, TfL faces immediate technical bankruptcy.

The London mayor, Sadiq Khan, has called for the government to provide 4.9 billion in subsidy to take TfL up to April 2022, the end of the next financial year.

The government has demanded TfL extend the 'Congestion Charge' for drivers, and remove free travel from children and pensioners. Tories on the London Assembly have also called for attacks on TfL workers' pensions and travel rights.

Transport union RMT will resist any attacks on TfL workers, and opposes any increase in fares or additional taxes or charges on the people of London.

The way to fill the TfL funding gap is to restore government support. If TfL received anything like the government subsidy that helps run the New York Subway or Paris Metro, the funding crisis would be resolved already.

Khan has backed this call for additional funding, with the threat that if the government does not provide it he will issue a 'Section 114' notice - effectively declaring TfL bankrupt - and set about shutting down services.

To carry this out would be an appalling position. The Greater London Authority has borrowing powers and reserves that it could harness to avoid cuts. While this would bring it into conflict with the Department for Transport, it would enable it to mobilise a public campaign to force the government to support TfL.

In response to Khan's threat, the government has threatened to take control of TfL away from the London mayor and run it directly, in order to impose its own cuts.

RMT is discussing a response to the current crisis involving both industrial action and a political campaign across London. We already have a position of accepting no cuts, and working with other unions and TfL service users to fight for full government funding.

The shareholders of the privatised train-operating companies have already been bailed out by the government. They've been funded to give them a profitable return on the level of usage they would have expected were it not for Covid. Dividends continue to be paid out by these firms.

We cannot accept another bail-out for the rich while essential workers - who have kept services running throughout the Covid pandemic - pay with their jobs and conditions, and the wider working class is asked to top up the bosses' profits with yet more cuts and charges.

How can passengers and car users fight back?

London Socialist Party

The RMT union is right to discuss industrial action in response to the twin threats from the Tory government and Labour mayor. But what could the wider working class in London do to resist possible attacks on our travel?

Congestion Charge

Leaked government proposals suggest expanding the Congestion Charge from parts of central London to everything within the North and South Circular. The adult population inside it would explode from 170,000 to three million - enveloping around half of Greater London - never mind those commuting in from beyond it. Vehicle journeys in the zone could soar tenfold.

Within a matter of days, over 130,000 signed a petition opposing the idea. Even Tory MPs have reacted viscerally against it. The huge numbers of hard-pressed workers who couldn't afford to commute or shop, and the breadth of opposition, would guarantee mass non-payment.

Ending free travel

Free 'Zip' Oyster travel for under-18s has been under threat from Tory and Labour cuts for some time already. Austerity also restricted free travel on over-60 Oysters to journeys after 9am only.

The leaked Tory report now proposes ending all this free travel. There are over two million Londoners aged 18 or under, and over 1.3 million aged 60 or over, according to 2016 estimates by the Office for National Statistics.

The sheer scale of these attacks on passengers or car users would necessitate a generalised response. A first step would be a call on trade union, school student and pensioner organisations to build for a mass demonstration demanding non-implementation.

Political challenge

With both Starmer's Labour and the Tories bent on finding some way to make the working class pay for the TfL crisis, the RMT is also right to consider a political response. The union's national executive committee agreed this summer that the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) should recommence electoral challenges to politicians of any party who attack the working class.

Socialist Party branches around the country are writing to local RMT and other union branches, as well as community campaigners, to suggest forming local TUSC committees to prepare such challenges. This year's London mayoral and assembly elections, delayed to 2021, will be an important forum for discussing the fightback the capital's working class needs.

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The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the class character of society in numerous ways. It is making clear to many that it is the working class that keeps society running, not the CEOs of major corporations.

The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

The government has now ripped up its 'austerity' mantra and turned to policies that not long ago were denounced as socialist. But after the corona crisis, it will try to make the working class pay for it, by trying to claw back what has been given.

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In The Socialist 28 October 2020:


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