Sam Tarry was Labour’s shadow minister for transport. He joined railworkers’ picket lines and here continues to speak out in support of the trade unions’ battle for better pay and conditions. Starmer sacked him for his pains
We are told workers can’t talk about pay rises that match inflation. The shadow front bench give lectures about fiscal responsibility. The truth is we’ve had the lowest pay rises since Napoleonic times. We should be doing more than just saying negotiate. It’s extremely problematic to say you can’t have a pay rise that matches inflation. Talk of fiscal responsibility is not helpful. Any government has got a fiscal responsibility to ensure wages are fair.
Labour could be doing more directly to say the disputes should be settled; this is affordable and necessary. If you are going to deal with NHS staff retention, keep and recruit nurses, junior doctors and ancillary workers, they have to be paid a better salary. You’ve got huge gaps to fill. The main issue cited in the strikes is wage levels. Even for those at the top end of the wage spectrum, pay has not risen for up to 15 years, especially when you see new graduates and junior doctors have huge levels of debt to pay off for an expensive, overpriced education. Tuition is not free as it is in Scotland. When you take all this into account, it’s clear the Government should settle.
Regarding rail disputes, we need to talk about the ROSCOs, the rolling stock companies. They were created at the end of nationalisation. They are now run by hedge funds, and they have been making huge profits. When you get on Avanti West Coast trains, the train and stock is owned by ROSCOs, leased back at huge costs to the train companies and paid by taxpayers through huge subsidies. Ending this could be done straight away.
On rail, it’s also important to recognise this is a dispute that’s highly political in nature. The Government could have settled months ago. What unions are asking for is not particularly excessive. The difference is they are incredibly strong, with a high density of membership, and can have a real national impact, as we saw with strikes over the FA Cup weekend in early June.
The Government think they’ve got a bogey man. Government can say these unions are on the Labour NEC. This is the Tories’ attack line. They see it in their interest to keep the strikes running.
Any concessions to unions could be seen to have a domino effect across other sectors of the economy. So the Government are taking on the most militant head on. It’s important that Labour calls this out and explains this in lay person’s language as to why the dispute is ongoing. Labour needs to explain it’s not to do with intransigence of Mick Whelan or Mick Lynch but with the Government. The unions can’t even get a piece of paper on the table. The rug is pulled from under the rail delivery companies. Huw Merriman and transport ministers are all part of Grant Shapps’ strategy of having disputes across the economy so they can bring in more restrictive trade union legislation. This is the Tories’ agenda.
But the public have not been going along with the Government line. The Government have not won the war on the airways.
The Tory argument that wages cause inflation is complete nonsense. Wages have not been rising for 15 years, while inflation is through the roof. Most workers have not had any pay rises whatsoever. So, it’s just factually untrue. We have a high-employment, low-wage economy. If wages rise, they are not the causes of these ongoing price rises.
Ask yourself why prices are high just now. Gas prices have plummeted. Savings have not been passed on. Energy companies are making huge profits. Ask about the big supermarkets. Listen to Jack Monroe, ‘the bootstrap cook’. All the basic items that poor families depend upon – bread, eggs, milk – have gone up the most, at least by 25%. James Meadway, in his book Cost of Living Crisis, explains clearly why having higher wages will not impact inflation. The 350 FTSE companies have made a 70% profit increase on average since 2019. It’s due to corporate greed.
So, the cost-of-living crisis is in large part because of Government failures around housing, failure to get a grip on the energy market, failure to stem rent rises, failure to stem excessive profit rises.
One of the problems is, if the Labour Party does not challenge this junk economics, we buy into the Tory argument. Think of a football match. It’s like playing the whole game in the opposite half. The opposing team are going to score a goal. We have to move the game into our half. So we have to change the narrative. We have to explain that the Government is using fake economics. Otherwise, we’ll always be on the back foot. If we want to talk about growing the economy, about investment in the economy, about decent wages, about a proper industrial and manufacturing strategy, a green economy, we have to take on the falsehoods being propagated by the Tories on a daily basis.
Labour’s programme, A New Deal for Working People, is worth fighting for. We need every MP to ensure this is in the final manifesto.