There was a fascinating vignette on Ken and David Mellor’s LBC show on Saturday. Mick Whelan, the general secretary of the rail union Aslef, worked on a weekend to put the case for his downtrodden Tube drivers (they are, you’ll remember, striking on Boxing Day and three other days for triple time and extra holiday in lieu, even though they already get £45,000 and seven weeks’ holiday a year.)
Boxing Day is, of course, one of the key shopping days of the whole calendar – a day which London’s struggling retailers badly need to be a success. Gently probed by Mellor on whether it was fair for Aslef’s handsomely-rewarded members, in their totally secure jobs, to jeopardise the employment of much less well-paid shopworkers, Whelan came out with some classic phrases which deserve a wider audience.
“We see ourselves as stakeholders in London, we always have,” he said. “Most of your days off aren’t yours because of the strictures around alcohol and whatever.” You’d actually have to get utterly plastered on your last day off to fall foul of TfL’s alcohol policy – and I’m intrigued at the Aslef view that no leisure can be considered complete without large amounts of alcohol…or “whatever.”
“People don’t just give you your salary for nothing,” went on Whelan. Being a Tube driver was “one of the hardest, most responsible roles in transport.” By now, listeners across London were openly weeping at the sheer pathos of the drivers’ plight. Or perhaps they were just tears of laughter?
Second only to head of compliments at Virgin Trains, being a Tube driver is in fact the easiest job in transport. Unlike almost every other kind of transport employee, you almost never have to deal with the public. You never have to drive in traffic. You spend your whole time sitting down. The service pattern, with all the trains travelling at roughly the same speed along the same few routes, is nothing like as complicated as a surface railway. The system is substantially enclosed. You don’t even, on an increasing number of Tube lines, actually have to drive the train: it drives itself. All you do is sit in your chair and press a button to open and close the doors. A machine could do it – and in many cities, it does.
Ken, of course, wasn’t about to point this out. As the London Tory MP Jane Ellison, co-chair of the parliamentary retail group, noted today, Labour has taken £35,000 in donations from Aslef already this year, much of it for Ken’s campaign, and Ken personally has had nearly £40k from the union over the years. Ken ended the Whelan interview with a cheery message to his paymasters: “I suspect I’m not speaking for the unanimity of all Londoners,” he chortled. “But do have a good Christmas.”
I somehow think they will, Ken. Now how about getting round to the rest of us?