|Peter Pinkney and Janine Booth, Housmans Peace Bookshop|
By Theo Russell
HOUSMAN Bookshop in London hosted a meeting last week which combined a remembrance for RMT general secretary Bob Crow with a talk by Janine Booth on her new book, Plundering London Underground.
Janine, an ex-RMT colleague of Bob Crow, recalled: “One of the first things he did when he became general secretary was to introduce reviews of books on working class history into the RMT magazine. He was open to criticism and generous to his friends and colleagues. When I left my RMT job his gift was a candle in the likeness of Joseph Stalin.”
Peter Pinkney, RMT President (an ex-Tyneside shipyard worker), said Crow was nothing like the image portrayed in the media, but “a kind and loving man who was able to persuade even right wingers on the executive round to his point of view. But the RMT was not just Bob Crow; it was and is made up of all its members.
Pinkney called on the union movement to be more militant and to demand “re-nationalisation with no compensation”. “Marches and protests don’t have any effect. The TUC needs to grow some balls, start fighting back and call for a general strike,” he said.
“We owe the future to the young generation which isn’t to be the first generation to hand over worse living conditions.”
Janine Booth, speaking on her new book, said: “The year 2013 saw the 150th anniversary of the tube, which was originally a patchwork of competing private companies that were first brought into a form of public ownership in the 1930s.
“The tube is better when publicly owned and with a unified structure, when it is well funded, when it has a public rather than a business ethos, and when its management is accountable to an elected, democratic body, rather than simple public or national control.
“In the economically depressed 1920s and 30s, Tory and Liberal-led governments invested in London’s underground and extended lines with the aim of creating jobs. Today it is the opposite, with 12.5 per cent budget cuts each year, resulting in ticket office closures, thousands of jobs lost, and plans for driverless trains.
“In 1948 control over London Underground (LU) was handed to the newly nationalised British Rail, and almost no new investment was made until the creation of the Greater London Council in 1965. Then the Piccadilly Line was extended to Heathrow and the Jubilee Line was built.
“But then came Thatcher in 1979, and in came outsourcing of everything from track maintenance to catering. LU became London Underground Ltd, and although Government-controlled it was now run on business lines, so the elderly and disabled became lower funding priorities.
“Apart from a rise in spending after the 1987 Kings Cross fire, funding was steadily cut, and the budget process made long-term planning impossible. After a decade the tube was falling apart with delays, breakdowns and shabby, dirty stations.
“During the 1997 election Labour appeared to oppose privatisation of the tube, an important factor in its election victory, but very few understood the meaning of ‘public private partnership’ at the time. The committee set up to oversee the PPP process consisted of business leaders, ex-Thatcher advisors and the accountants Price Waterhouse.
“They split the 10 tube lines into three ‘public private’ companies with 30-year contracts (signed on New Year’s eve to avoid publicity) which ensured no risks or penalties for investors. Between 2003 and 2010 the contractors made profits of £1 million a week.
“But as a huge campaign against PPP developed, even the London [Evening Standard], which at first called PPP a ‘realistic business plan’, turned against it. In one tube strike – unusually backed by both RMT and ASLEF – only 25 trains were running.
“Between 2003 and 2007 there was a chain of train derailments at Chancery Lane, Hammersmith, Camden Town, White City, and Mile End, in which 46 passengers were hurt, caused by lapses in train, track and safety failures, and many more derailments at train depots which went unreported.
“After Mile End, one of the two contractors for the tube’s upgrade, Metronet, went bankrupt, but under the terms of their contract 95 per cent of their £2 billion debt was picked up by the taxpayer.
“In 2010 the second infrastructure company, Tube Lines, was taken over by Transport for London after major problems and delays with the Jubilee Line upgrade – ironically by right-wing Tory Mayor Boris Johnson – receiving £350 million in ‘compensation’ courtesy of the taxpayer.
“So by 2010 all the upgrade and maintenance work given over to PPP by the Labour government was restored to a form of public ownership. But Tube Lines’ workforce were left with worse conditions and pensions than those enjoyed by London Underground staff.”
The book ends with a vision of a possible socialist future for London’s beloved Underground, based on planning, involving the workers and passengers, lower fares, line extensions, longer running times, better safety and provision for people with disabilities, adequate staffing and staffed ticket offices at every station. Bring it on!
Plundering London Underground: New Labour, private capital and public service 1997-2010, by Janine Booth, with a foreword by Bob Crow; Merlin Press, December 2013, £13.95.