Southern Railway’s strike tweet highlights the new, nasty era we’re living in

Another happy day on Southern. Image: Getty.

It’s awful business practice to slate your staff to your customers – so why is the already-beleaguered Southern Railway doing exactly that? The short version is, it’s part of a fluffy Blair-era private-public partnership company whose business model is obsolete in today’s nastier world – it just hasn’t realised it yet.  

On top of the problems with its service that has led to cuts and delays all year, the firm is also the target of a strike by RMT union conductors this week. On social media, Southern decided this would be a good response:

You can click through the tweet to read the reactions, but suffice it to say that they were less than positive. If you're in a customer-facing industry and you bash your staff to your customers, whatever the context, you end up looking at best incompetent, and at worst treacherous and incompetent. So what's going on? 

I wrote about the background to this dispute here in August, and not much has changed. Quick précis: the model of train operation where the guard is in charge of the doors and sounds the starting bell (as distinct from being a person on board who makes sure passengers are safe, sells tickets and helps evacuate in an emergency) has been obsolete for decades. Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), which operates Southern-branded trains, already has driver-only operation on some of its routes; it's trying to introduce it on more; and RMT conductors are going on strike because they disapprove, citing a risk to passenger safety.

The safety claims don't have any real merit. Swathes of London’s network are already driver-operated, as is the Underground; these have no difference in safety record from areas where guards operate the doors. The RMT know this, and are pretending a dispute which is about protecting their members' jobs and conditions, is about protecting the public.

Even though rail is a very safe transport mode, and UK railways among the world’s safest, the fear of a train crash haunts public imaginations (not helped by incidents in countries that use technology that was removed decades ago in Britain, such as Italy and the USA). We’re bad at assessing risk versus cost, especially when rare failures are horrific. Many people are unhappy about unions standing up for their members’ pay and conditions – so public safety is an understandable path for the RMT to tread despite the total absence of evidence.

That doesn't explain Southern's response, though. As a company in a heavily unionised industry, you can be a hard-arsed union basher like Rupert Murdoch in the 1980s, or you can work with the union and be liked by your customers. You can’t do both, and saying “poor me” when you've allowed a strike to happen doesn't cut it.

To understand why the response has gone wrong, you need to understand the status of the GTR business. Although it's operated under contract by a private company, it doesn’t make commercial decisions and keep fare-box profits like Virgin Trains. GTR is paid a fixed operating fee by the Department for Transport (DfT), and it does exactly what the department tells it to do.

Rail frontline staff costs have risen (and strikes fallen) in the 20 years since privatisation. That’s because commercial franchisees are incentivised to meet staff demands rather than lose revenues and attract penalty payments. This isn’t the biggest driver of increased costs on the railway, but it is still a significant one.

The new minister in charge at the DfT is far-right attack dog Chris Grayling. At the time GTR's contract was signed, the minister was Patrick McLoughlin, an ex-miner who worked throughout the 1984 strike. Their attitude to staff costs and the merits of unions is, well, not hard to guess.


So, how does this fit with the Southern tweet?

GTR signed up to do what they were told, and they're being told to be bastards. There are outsourcing companies who specialise in this job; most obviously G4S and Serco, who've seldom met a jail or a migrant detention centre they wouldn't take on for a fee.

But that isn't how UK train operating companies have worked since privatisation – they're rooted in Richard Branson and Tony Blair's world of post-ideology capitalism, where everyone smiles and there's enough money going around to grease everyone’s palms. Southern was run as a traditional franchise by Govia before GTR was created, so its corporate culture (white collar types who're obliged to believe in brand values, rather than skilled union types who just drive trains) reflects that world.

In this context, Southern's tweet – some marketers not understanding why the RMT has to be so horrible, when they're only doing what the government has told them to do – sums up the change in era. The Blairite fluffy model is dead, replaced by savage cuts and Thatcherite union battles.

The government knows we're in a newer, nastier era. The RMT knows it, and the people who responded angrily to Southern's tweet know it. The folks at Southern probably need to learn it, quick-sharp.

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The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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