Building Labour’s public transport policy

If one ever wanted to see the logical conclusion of Thatcherite public policy, they need look no further than the state of the public transport network across Britain today. In a fragmented, market-driven environment, the British people are rightfully angry when their needs are second placed to the need for private companies to return ever bigger profits for their shareholders. A Labour government must commit to provide a new and radical approach to public transport, and ensure that all money invested is going into services, and not lining operating companies’ pockets.

The legacy of Thatcherism has been to reduce Britain’s most well-used public transport services, buses and overground trains, to little more than the off-shoot arms of multinationals trying to win an ever greater slice of the transport pie. The 1985 Transport Act deregulated the buses, forcing competition onto services. Outside of London, where transport is still overseen by Transport for London, the result has been the death of municipally-run bus services across the country, leaving local councils and communities at the mercy of the whims of organisations whose sole aim is to turn a profit.

In railways, too, after the 1993 privatisation, multinationals have made billions out of passengers, hiking fares above inflation, and hitting commuters in their pockets. And yet the recent scandal around the West Coast Mainline franchising proves just how wasteful and inefficient the current system of managing British rail is, with companies deliberately overpromising what they can deliver to win contracts, with no possible hope of delivering. Once a company gets the franchise, they can dictate the terms of service until the conclusion of their contract.

Public transport is by its very nature monopolistic – the idea that you can make some kind of rational, economically-driven decision on the basis of which service to choose or which operator to select is a fantasy dreamt up in the corridors of Conservative Party HQ. What matters is who controls that monopoly; should it be private companies who only care about profits, or should it be democratically elected governments and councils? Labour must make argue for the latter.

In the case of buses, this radical approach should come in the form of local authorities, and local people themselves, having real power over how their transport is planned and operated. For our railways, only through a nationally organised system can we ensure that all profits are ploughed straight back into the service, and that fares are kept down. And common ownership isn’t any longer some obsession of the left, 70% of the British public in a recent poll said they supported renationalisation of the railways. And who can blame then? Not only are privatised railways inefficient and undemocratic, but they’re expensive too, costing taxpayers £1.2 billion a year.

Transport is probably not going to be the decisive make or break policy decision for a voter at the next general election, but it does go to the heart of the future of public services in the UK, and how Labour will build a fairer society through them. Ultimately, it shows who a Labour government will be on the side of, the British people who are seeing bigger fares and worse services, or big business and cosy transport cabals who are focused only on making money. We know which side the Tories will be on, so let’s build a programme for government that sticks up for the whole country.

 

  • By Dan Jeffery

 

TSSA takes on Virgin Trains ‘fire-at-will’ culture

It would be difficult to find anyone who doesn’t know about Richard Branson and his media, travel and leisure empire. On the surface, it’s a fairytale story of British business success. Virgin is a household name with a brand built through slick advertising and a strong focus on customer relations and media image. Branson personally appears in television adverts with the likes of Usain Bolt and David Tennant, even turning up for the launch of the Virgin Trains presence on Twitter.

Branson’s reputation for practical entrepreneurship and self-starter philosophy is what attracts many people to Virgin – both as customers and employees.

But Branson has succeeded by very much doing business ‘his way’. His business empire is owned by a complex series of offshore trusts and companies. In July 2011, long before David Cameron was castigating Jimmy Carr, the Guardian published details of Branson’s strategy to move Virgin Enterprises to Geneva in a move to avoid paying millions of pounds of UK tax.

The role of Virgin in NHS privatisation has rightly earned criticism from healthcare and anti-cuts campaigners. But a growing number of instances are showing up the unpleasant reality of a firm built on glossy ‘fun’ image, presided over by a supposedly a conscientious, caring tycoon.

An example of this is Virgin Trains. Apart from the question of private involvement in the railways in general, it should be obvious that all operators running the state-provided franchises must pay their fair share of tax and employ staff in a just way.

Virgin Trains, however is currently embroiled in a dispute with the TSSA transport union over their ‘fire-at-will’ work culture. The company has allowed the situation to escalate to the point that Britain’s busiest rail route may be threatened with strike action during the Olympics – over the most basic of employment rights.

The TSSA ballot has been sparked by the dismissal (and then subsequent suspension) of TSSA rep Martin Hodges from Virgin Train’s Customer Services HQ in Birmingham.

The company are now claiming this is because of exceptional sickness back in 2010. This is rather surprising, given the same management awarded Martin a certificate for ‘Best Attendance’ in 2011 – something which can be seen on the Support sacked staff at Virgin Trains Facebook group.

The fact that it was a union rep – advocating on behalf of his fellow workers – that was the target of this action looks all the more suspicious given TSSA’s contention that Virgin Trains have refused to carry out an investigation or follow their own procedures which would have ensured a proper hearings to consider evidence from both sides.

After repeated attempts to resolve the situation with the company, TSSA announced its intention to ballot 500 members last month, noting that this is far from the only case where staff have been removed from the workforce with no real notice and very little explanation.

The union’s launched an energetic campaign inside and outside the company to highlight Virgin’s refusal to implement employment law, calling on Richard Branson to intervene. A high-profile banner drop at Euston Station last Friday saw activists leaflet the station and hang a banner from the station balcony imploring Branson to treat his staff fairly.

This case highlights the ineffectiveness of the employment tribunal procedures, which allow employers to sack staff without any reason and – even if the case is brought and won at a tribunal, get away with little punishment. Private companies would often much rather proffer cheques behind closed doors when a case is going badly for them, rather than follow the law. The culture of fear this can create in workplaces, especially at a time when people cannot be certain of finding other work is a challenge to anyone looking to stand up for the rights of their fellow workers and is particularly damaging to young people who may be at the bottom of the workplace food-chain.

In a recent article, Left Foot Forward highlighted the fear faced by staff at Virgin. It is well documented that when companies flout these laws, those who already face discrimination are particularly affected, whether they be disabled, women, black people or the LGBT community. Pressure must be put on these companies to at the very least follow their own procedures and the limited protections the law offers. When these highly profitable private operators are licensed and subsidised by taxpayers, the case is even more compelling.

For more information visit the TSSA website and follow the #Virginontheridiculous hashtag

 

By Ben Soffa

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Boris Johnson defies public opinion with another fare rise

Boris Johnson this morning announced his revised fare rise, following Labour’s campaign for a ‘Fare Deal’ for passengers.

Even according to his own release, this is still a 5.6% fare rise. Under Boris Johnson a single bus fare on Oyster is now up exactly 50% under the Tory Mayor – up to £1.35. Some fares are much higher – on average Tube fares will rise by RPI + 1% (6%). Some fares on TfL rail services are higher still – including some as high as 8%. There is no indication that Boris Johnson has abandoned his plan for above-inflation fare rises in future years.

Ken Livingstone said, ‘Under enormous pressure from Londoners for a fare cut, the Tories have come up with another fare rise, making Londoners hundreds of pounds worse off and meaning a single bus fare by Oyster is now up 50% under this Mayor.’

‘Rising fares under Boris Johnson or a fares cut with my Fare Deal give Londoners a very clear choice. Fares are rising when they should be cut, and as the Tory Mayro has once again failed to cut them today, I will set out next week further details of how I will cut them instead. Someone has to give a lead when people are are feeling the squeeze – with some vision and hard work this fare rise could have been avoided.’

‘London has a moonlighting Mayor with a second salary worth £250,000 and it is little wonder that he is so out of touch he thinks this fare rise is what people want.’

  • Across London on the 3rd January the Ken campaign is going to leaflet hundreds of stations to highlight the Tory Mayor’s record fare rises. Click here to join in.