“Why is this man transport secretary?” On the naked partisanship of Chris Grayling

Lawyers hold a Chris Grayling puppet during his tenure as justice secretary. Image: Getty.

Oh good, there’s more.

Yesterday, the Evening Standard revealed that transport secretary Chris Grayling had decided to block the expansion of Transport for London’s rail empire, describing it as mere “deckchair shifting”. In our report on the topic we speculated about three possible reasons for this: practical concerns, ideological ones, or nakedly political ones.

In today’s Evening Standard, there’s another top scoop on the subject, by Pippa Crerar. It begins as follows:

The Transport Secretary was today accused of putting party politics ahead of commuters after a leaked letter revealed he opposed handing over control of suburban rail to keep it “out of the clutches” of Labour.

(...)

...in a letter written before the new Mayor took over, he admitted he was against rail devolution to keep services away from any future Labour mayor, rather than because of the impact on commuters.

So. That settles that one.

The letter dates from 2013, when Conservative Boris Johnson was still mayor. Here’s the key passage:

“While I am generally a great supporter of what you are doing in London, I would not be in favour of changing the current arrangements – not because I have any fears over the immediate future, but because would like to keep suburban rail services out of the clutches of any future Labour Mayor.

Obviously similar concerns apply over a future Labour government as well, but the continuation of the system we have at the moment does at least mean that MPs and local authorities from outside the London area would have a remit over train services in our areas, which I would not like us to lose.”

Three thoughts on this:

1)  This is partisanship of the most shameless and disgusting sort. Chris Grayling is meant to be transport secretary for the entire country, not just for people who vote for him. That he would take a major policy decision based not on what is best for Britain’s commuters, but on how to best undermine his opponents, speaks volumes about Grayling’s statesmanship – and explains the level of esteem in which his achievements in previous ministerial roles, at justice and work & pensions, are held.

2) It also doesn’t really stack up on its own terms. As things stand, there are already a fair few commuters towns outside the London boundary, which are dependent on Transport for London for their travel arrangements: Amersham, Watford, Epping, Brentwood. They seem to get along fine: indeed, they seem to have better train services than most commuter towns that sit outside the TfL empire.

No mayor of London, of either party, has ever had a policy of running fewer services outside the city boundary, so as to boost those inside it. Partly that’s because it’d be stupid, but largely it’s because railways simply don’t work like that:  service levels are dependent on boring physical factors like track arrangements, signalling, the location of sidings and so forth. Political boundaries have nothing to do with it.

Does Grayling not understand this? If he doesn’t, why on earth is he transport secretary? And if he does, what on earth is he wibbling about?

3) While we’re on the topic of things Chris Grayling doesn’t seem to understand: why does he think that MPs and local authorities have any remit over franchising arrangements at the moment?

Okay, MPs can annoy the transport secretary, who can in turn annoy the train companies. But that’s a pretty indirect and weak form of accountability, as demonstrated by [insert example of terrible train service of your choice]. Local authorities, meanwhile, have no ability to control train services at all that I can see.

So why does Grayling believe that giving TfL a role in service commissioning would weaken accountability?

Once again: why is this man transport secretary?

I’m not the only one wondering that this afternoon. From the Standard:

Tory former minister Bob Neill called on Mr Grayling to stand down saying he had “lost confidence” in him as Transport Secretary.

The Bromley and Chislehurst MP told the Standard: “My discussions with him indicate to me that he’s acted for party reasons and not acted in the interests of London commuters.

“It’s pretty clear that he has a dogmatic opposition to rail devolution and I don’t think that’s a legitimate basis on which to take a decision. It demonstrates that he’s acted extremely badly. I don’t have confidence any more in him as Secretary of State.”

Bromley is of course a London constituency.

It takes a special talent to change a policy for nakedly partisan reasons, and still manage to alienate MPs from your party.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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Southern Rail is resuming full service – but how did the company's industrial relations get so bad?

A happy day last August. Image: Getty.

“I cannot simply operate outside the law, however much I might be tempted to, however much people might want me to,” a pained Chris Grayling said on TV on 13 December. As the first all-out drivers’ strike shut down the entirety of Southern’s network, the transport secretary insisted to interviewers he was powerless in this struggle between unions and a private rail operator.

But rewind to February and Grayling’s Department for Transport was putting out a very different message. “Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch-ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support,” Peter Wilkinson, the Department’s passenger services director, told a public meeting:

“We have got to break them. [Train drivers] have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”

Wilkinson was forced to apologise for his comments. But when Southern began to implement driver-only operation, replacing conductors with non-safety-critical “on-board supervisors”, unions weren’t convinced by claims it was all about improved customer service. “This is a national fight – we’re not going to let them pick off one group of workers at a time,” a spokesman for the rail union RMT said in April.

The strikes have been repeatedly characterised as being about who opens and closes train doors. Journalists might consider this the best way to capture the distinction between different modes of train operation – but it’s also the easiest way to dismiss and ridicule the dispute.

The reality is that with driver-only operation, all operational functions are removed from conductors. It’s then left to drivers to assess – at each station – whether it’s safe to leave the platform. Aslef, the train drivers’ union, says this requires its members to look at dozens of CCTV images in a matter of seconds. And ultimately, trains can run with just the driver.

While Southern has promised not to dismiss its current workforce, unions fear that removing the guarantee of a second member of staff will eventually lead to them being ditched altogether. Who would look after passengers if the driver became incapacitated?

In an article, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg suggested the dispute was also fuelled by rivalry between the RMT, which represents the conductors, and Aslef. Though the relationship between the two unions hasn’t always been easy, she misses the point entirely.

At a TUC fringe meeting in 2014, I watched RMT delegates accuse drivers of being happy to accept pay-rises in exchange for implementing driver-only operation. Aslef insisted this was not its approach, and the following year the union’s conference endorsed a motion calling for no extension of the method, and for guards to be restored where they had already been axed.

Surely the real theme of the Southern dispute is the unity of the workforce. Conductors are striking against de-skilling, drivers are striking against taking on additional duties, and the mandate for action among both groups is overwhelming.

It’s true, however, that a walk-out of drivers can have a much bigger impact than a conductors’ strike – given that 60 per cent of Southern services are already driver-only. And this is why Southern’s owner Govia Thameslink Railway, Britain’s worst-performing railway, has been so keen to prevent Aslef from going on strike. When Gatwick Express (also part of GTR) drivers refused to drive new 12-carriage trains without guards in April, the company secured a court injunction preventing striking over driver-only trains. It did so again in June after drivers voted to strike, with the High Court agreeing the ballot had included drivers on irrelevant routes.


When drivers balloted again in August, lawyers went over the ballot with a fine tooth-comb and forced the union to re-ballot over a technicality, fittingly, about doors. This week’s strike was only allowed because first the High Court, and then the Court of Appeal, ruled it was not an infringement of EU freedom of movement laws. When GTR launched this bid in the courts, a senior trade unionist told me it was in “wanky wonderland” if it thought it would win.

You’d think such expensive litigation would be risky for a company facing the ire of frustrated passengers. Things have got so bad some have moved house or switched to driving to work instead. But GTR, unlike most of Britain’s private railways, doesn’t operate on the normal franchise model. Rather than collecting fare revenue, the company is paid a set fee by the government – and so it has far lesser risks.

Critics say this has made Southern ideal as a test-ground for taking on the unions over driver-only operation, claiming the government wants to make it national as part of a cost-cutting drive.

But even with such a good deal on a plate, chaos has followed Southern bosses everywhere. At the Transport Select Committee in July, the firm faced heavy criticism for failing to recruit enough staff at the start of the contract. Southern has accused unions of unofficial action through high levels of staff sickness. But are these really a surprise when industrial relations are so bad and workers are threatened with the sack?

The Committee issued a withering report – but that was where its powers stopped. Transport secretary Grayling is also refusing to act, and the company is, after all, owned by a FTSE 250 firm and a French transport group. The only people with the power to do anything, it seems, are the workers. As hell-raising as their strike may be, perhaps it’s time we celebrated it.

Conrad Landin is the Morning Star's industrial correspondent. This article previously appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.

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