P-P-Privatising the underground, and 'opposition'

As London Underground (LU) workers strike once again, Daniel O’Rourke looks at Labour’s Public-Private Partnership (PPP) scheme which is largely behind the recent problems

Submitted by libcom on January 4, 2006

New year's eve strike account here:

In order to deflect public criticism over the disastrous national rail privatisation by the previous Conservative government, Labour said that the running of LU trains would remain within the public sector while the maintenance of the track and stations would be placed under the control of the private sector. The placing of profit before safety by the private companies in charge of the national railway’s infrastructure was the main factor in the subsequent rise in rail accidents.

The LU unions promised a joint campaign against the threat PPP posed to safety and jobs. A ballot of RMT members in 2001 resulted in the largest majority for strike action ever recorded in the history of LU—by 11 to 1. That so few trains ran was also a measure of the degree to which the picket lines were respected by ASLEF members. On the Circle Line and Hammersmith and City—where ASLEF members constitute the majority of train operators—there was no service.

For Tube workers the strikes were seen primarily as a means to stop PPP, but the RMT has always refused to make this its explicit aim, saying instead it was fighting against the “effects” of privatisation. The unions claimed that to say explicitly they were opposing privatisation would mean that a strike would be deemed “political” and therefore illegal under Tory antiunion legislation kept on the statute books by New Labour. However, the union’s refusal to challenge the undemocratic antiunion laws is bound up with their own desire to avoid any action that could arouse a broader questioning of the profit motive and the extension of the market into the public sector.

Once it had reached an agreement with LU safeguarding its own interests, the RMT bureaucracy called an end to one-day strikes against privatisation. The central theme of the agreement was the incorporation of the unions into the process of PPP. The Labour government and LU management recognised that they could not hope to implement PPP without the unions’ collaboration.

In attempting to deflect criticism that this constitutes an acceptance of PPP, the union claimed that the deal secured the jobs and conditions of Tube workers whilst meeting safety concerns over the impact of privatisation.

For their part, the lefts within the unions sought to channel opposition into pressure groups such as the Campaign against Tube Privatisation (CATP). The main activity of this group was to support in May the election as London mayor of former Labour MP Ken Livingstone, who ran against the official Labour Party candidate Frank Dobson (and has subsequently called on tube workers to scab on strikes - libcom).

The RMT and ASLEF supported Livingstone’s election, claiming LU would be safe in his hands. Livingstone had made opposition to the government’s PPP plans for the Underground central to his campaign, condemning it as a form of privatisation that would be detrimental to the safety of LU workers and passengers alike. The issue played a significant role in Livingstone’s victory against Dobson.

Livingstone also threatened to make privatisation a “live issue” during the general elections. He appeared on rally platforms organised by the rail unions and pledged to join drivers on the picket lines during their strike. But Livingstone used the unpopularity of PPP to increase his political influence with government and big business, while promoting a “bond scheme”—an alternative means of raising private capital for the Underground.

In the same week the High Court ruled against the RMT’s industrial action, Labour announced that Bob Kiley—Livingstone’s Transport Commissioner—had been placed in charge of redrafting government proposals for PPP. Kiley’s only difference with the government’s original plans appeared to be on dividing the Underground’s infrastructure into three segments. In return for this cooperation, Kiley said the bond scheme had been dropped.

Kiley leaves his job as transport commissioner at the end of January, but has been re-employed as Livingstone’s “principal transport adviser,” according to the mayor. After collecting his final salary of £700,000, he will be paid £280,000 for 90 days’ work in 2008—£3,000 a day. He will be allowed to continue living rent-free in the £2.1 million house provided for him in Belgravia. His work will concentrate on the Tube PPP contract negotiations that Livingstone once professed to oppose.

In 2001, the government announced the names of the consortia it had selected to run the LU infrastructure for the next 30 years. They included companies that have been implicated in the worst disasters to occur on the national railways since it was privatised in the early 1990s. Three of the twelve tube lines—Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly—are being upgraded, replaced and maintained by the infrastructure company (infraco) Tubelines, which includes Amey—the firm responsible for the signalling around London’s Paddington station. In 1999, a poorly sighted signal SN109 was responsible for the collision of two trains that claimed the lives of 31 passengers.

The remaining nine lines are controlled by the infraco Metronet. The main firm in this consortium is Balfour Beatty, responsible for failing to replace the cracked rail at Hatfield that caused the derailment of a train last October, killing four passengers. Balfour has also been implicated in several other rail safety violations, including the collapse of a tunnel at Heathrow in 1994.

The two infracos won multimillion-pound bonuses for “doing a good job” in July 2005 after LU issued a progress report. Even ASLEF General Secretary Keith Norman was moved to say, “Any schoolboy would be frightened stiff to take home an end-of-term report like this…. It would lead to all kinds of enquiries, condemnations and recriminations.”

Norman added, “It is a chronicle of failures and empty promises of progress. It proves the nonsense of the philosophy that private enterprise is inherently efficient. I hope it will prove a useful lesson to government economists as well as London Underground planners.”

Such polite complaints aside, the only lesson the trade union bureaucracy has taught the government has been to count on its willingness to collaborate with whatever attacks on tube workers it intends to make. The union leaders have already agreed with Metronet to set up a commission to look at the wages and conditions of new employees and the company’s final salary pension scheme.

Nevertheless, Norman’s point holds true. Signal failures, for example, increased by 43 percent in the first four months of 2005 and the overrun on engineering projects have increased by 35 percent year on year.