The headline on this evening’s Evening Standard was interesting, as its interpretation depended solely on one’s political persuasion: “Millions caught up in rush-hour chaos as Tube strike cripples the London Underground“. For my part, as someone who might be described as being on the left (though not far-left: to my way of thinking, my politics haven’t changed much in the last 15 years, but the centre of the political axis has shifted to the right) I feel a sense of grim satisfaction. Not against those people who have been inconvenienced or delayed by this – although in the grand scheme of things, it is merely an inconvenience. But because by their strike action, the RMT and the TSSA are hitting Johnson, Osborne, Cameron and their cronies in the City where it hurts – in their bank balances.
I have lived in the UK for 15 years, mostly London, and while I appreciate the many good qualities of living in a relatively tolerant, multicultural metropolis, the one thing that has always puzzled and dismayed me is the seeming disinterest in politics. I have often, only half-jokingly, attributed it to the difference between being a “citizen” and a “subject”. A “citizen” actively participates; a “subject”, by semantic connotation, doffs their cap and tugs their forelock at their master. What has been slightly heartening over the last 5 years (if nothing else) is the sudden awareness that politics matter, in every sphere of life. If you’re an artist – actor, singer, visual artist – you will have seen award-winning organisations like Shared Experience lose funding, while other bodies like the globally acclaimed UK Film Council (one of whose last investments made millions and was the Oscar-winning “The King’s Speech”) was one of the first fatalities of the Coalition’s vendetta against “quangos”. You will know that the cuts to the creative industries didn’t arise out a sense of fiscal responsibility – for every pound invested in the creative industries, the HMRC gets £1.50 back – so in that sense they are a better investment than, let’s say, banks, who in 2011 had lost £28 billion of taxpayers’ money. You will also know with a sinking feeling in your heart that we are being governed by a group of over-privileged, over-paid nincompoops whose commitment to outdated ideologies of free-market capitalism and power overrides any not-so-common sense or sensibility.
Why do I think this action will have repercussions beyond the Tube strike itself? Well, if people can wean themselves off the incredible job of brainwashing and manipulating the truth that the right-wing media does, it comes down to this: Boris Johnson made an election promise to not close any ticket offices and these two unions are calling him out on this. For those of you who don’t believe that our politicians should be accountable, fair enough; whinge away about the delays, and fixate on Crow’s holiday, his salary, his supposed intransigence (those who know him say he is a tough, but straight-talking operator). However, he is, unlike many of our politicians, doing what his members pay him to do i.e. to represent their best interests. There are 750 members of LU staff whose jobs are at risk here; not inconsiderable when one considers the workforce is approximately 5,000. There is also the risk to the public – underground stations are already understaffed and at crucial times of the day and evening it could leave people vulnerable. Boris has “promised” that there will be no staff cuts; but if his broken “promise” which has been at the crux of the strike is anything to go by, it isn’t worth the oxygen that was wasted in the making of it.
Imagine if the same cuts were administered to Westminster, or indeed to the Tory party; a loss of 15% of their MPs. Oh the outrage! Oh the wringing of hands! Oh the talk about workers’ rights there would be then! But of course, that hasn’t happened: they instead have “reluctantly” accepted that they “have” to have an 11% pay rise for their paltry 140 days in the Commons (that’s 28 weeks a year – down from 304 in 2006). This is why I personally am glad that these unions are striking, and I wish that every union had leaders as committed to their members. In the last 4 years, we have seen attacks on the public sector; an attempt at garrotting the NHS and the idea of free healthcare for all; vilification of teachers by a man who is the epitome of the inept ideologue with more ideas based on fiction than on fact; a sneering contempt for those most vulnerable in society through the murderous and insane bedroom tax (a descendant of the equally vile and contested window tax of the 17th century); the criminalisation of homeless people in key Tory councils, 30% of whom are former army personnel (ironic in the year that Cameron has poured in £55m into what promises to be a jingoistic insult to the fallen who believed they were fighting “the war to end all wars”); the over-emphasis on pursuing benefit fraud and the under-emphasis on pursuing tax avoidance and in bank regulation.
The type of politics that has been practised over the last four years is that of the smoke-and-mirrors variety; divert the public’s attention to one over-inflated issue/persona while deflecting from what the core truth of the matter actually is. In this immediate case it is that 750 workers livelihoods are at stake; that the public is being put at risk by the redundancies that will inevitably come on the back of Boris’ broken promises; and that the unions are holding him accountable for reneging on those election promises. In the future, the success or failure of these two unions in this instance will highlight whether the electorate in the UK, but we in London in particular, have been brainwashed by right-wing vitriol, or whether we will, despite long journeys, despite the inconvenience over the next few days, stand politically and intellectually, shoulder to shoulder with the unions and their members. In the end, all unions, whether it is BECTU, Unite, Unison, Equity, the TUC, TSSA or indeed the RMT are there to remind the politicians: You work for us.