Happy Christmas Aslef, says Ken Livingstone

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?

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Boris Johnson threatens to get rid of striking Tube drivers

Boris Johnson is threatening to get rid of tube drivers (Photo: PA)
Boris Johnson is threatening to get rid of striking tube drivers (Photo: PA)

Boris Johnson last night threatened to get rid of Tube drivers and automate the system in the face of waves of “pointless” strikes by London’s greediest unions.

At his speech to the annual London Government Dinner, Boris said:

“When the Jubilee works are complete there will be three lines in London – the Jubilee, Victoria and Central – which will operate on an automated system.

“It is a fact – though not a widely known fact – that as we speak most of the Jubilee Line currently operates under automatic train operation, from Stratford to Neasden. In other words, the driving of the train is done by computer rather than manually.

“Of course there will still need to be someone aboard the train, but thanks to the advanced signalling being installed it is also a fact that anyone in this room could in a matter of a few weeks acquire the qualifications necessary to supervise an underground train.

“The huge potential implications of that change will be obvious to everyone, and so I say to our colleagues in the trades union leadership that I respect and understand the vital role of unions in a free society to secure the best terms and conditions for their members, but I hope they will recognise that the patience of Londoners is not endless.

“They should abandon the recent pattern of pointless strikes.”

A driverless Tube is an idea I’ve been pushing for a while now. In 2009, for the Standard, I went to Paris to see how their Metro, even more strike-plagued than ours, is automating its oldest line, Line 1, roughly equivalent to our Central line. Last year, the Tory group on the London Assembly also took up the idea.

Boris’s plan is less ambitious – the Paris trains, which run almost entirely underground, will not have any staff on them at all – but it makes perfect sense in transport terms, and even better sense politically.

Boris rightly sees the dismal behaviour of Aslef, the RMT and the TSSA – who since the autumn have held a series of strikes over total non-issues – as a political opportunity for him.

Londoners simply cannot understand the behaviour of these people, who are well paid, for easy work, with total job security and absolutely no grounds for complaint  – but still push for yet more, even as everyone else has to tighten their belts.

There are a lot of votes to be won in standing up to them – especially since Ken Livingstone, with his usual political brilliance, has locked himself in to a position as the Tube unions’ advocate and beneficiary.

Ken Livingstone: more Aslef links

Twenty-eight London Tory MPs this morning called on Ken Livingstone to condemn the Tube strikes by Aslef and hand back the £5000 donation he took from the union, first revealed on this blog. Ken has refused both demands.

Today, another link between Ken and Aslef: a senior official of the union, Simon Weller, will appear at Ken’s “Progressive London” conference next month, an event dedicated in Ken’s words to “building the widest possible alliance” against the Tories.  The conference is co-sponsored by Aslef and in 2009, I can reveal, the union donated £2,500 to “Progressive London.” A similar amount is likely to have been donated in 2010 and 2011.

Gerry Doherty, the general secretary of the TSSA, will also appear at the conference. The TSSA is separately striking on the Tube and has provided Ken with his campaign office.

Ken also received £10,000 from Aslef for his 2008 mayoral campaign, and £20,000 from the union for his 2004 campaign. In 2008, he also received £100,000 from another Tube union, Unite, which represents engineering and electrical staff and voted for industrial action in 2009. Unite’s London regional secretary, Steve Hart, will also speak at next month’s conference.

It is not immediately clear to me what is “progressive” about Aslef. These strikes are a nothing more than an attack by prosperous middle-class train drivers on poor, working-class Londoners, who are forced through their fares to subsidise the Aslef Lifestyle.

Aslef members on the Tube enjoy salaries of nearly £45,000 a year, a 35-hour-week, almost seven weeks’ annual holiday, a final-salary pension, free travel for themselves and anyone else they care to nominate, easy if boring work, and total job security. Now though this is an employment package not shared by perhaps 90 per cent of the London workforce, I don’t necessarily begrudge it to the Tube drivers. What I do say is that it can scarcely be described as legitimate grounds for grievance.

Yet now the oppressed toilers of Aslef are striking for triple time and further days off in lieu for working Bank Holidays – even though their extended holiday entitlement was given them precisely in order to compensate for this. Though Aslef is now back-pedalling on its threat to strike on the day of the Royal Wedding, there is no doubt that the threat was explicitly made.

Team Livingstone this afternoon desperately claimed that the evil Tories were bashing the Tube unions to distract attention from the bankers. In fact, the two groups are the same.

Just like the bankers, the Tube drivers have become people locked into a private value system, where the most outrageous behaviour seems perfectly reasonable. In some ways, the drivers are worse. Unlike the bankers, they are paid directly by the rest of us and their actions have an immediate impact on our lives.

Not only has Ken refused to condemn Aslef, he has actually called on Boris Johnson to negotiate with the union – as if there were anything whatever to negotiate about.

This is the core reason why Ken is unfit to be mayor: he will work for some of the capital’s most reactionary special interests, rather than in the interest of London as a whole.

Ken Livingstone funders deliver their Christmas present

(Updated – with result of legal action)

Transport for London has failed in its court bid to block a strike by the Tube drivers’ union, Aslef, on Boxing Day.

In 1996 Aslef signed an agreement for its members to work on Bank Holidays in return for higher pay and longer holidays. They are now paid more than £40,000 a year for a 35-hour week, and get almost seven weeks’ holiday a year.

Now, however, Aslef has demanded to be paid triple time – around £495 for the day, or around £70 an hour – for working on December 26, plus a further day off in lieu. That’s what the strike’s about.

After the bad weather earlier this week, London retailers were hoping for a boost from the Boxing Day sales. If the Tube’s not working properly, they won’t get it. Services at Christmas have already been reduced – until the 1980s, the Tube used to run on Christmas Day as well, just like public transport virtually everywhere else in the world. If Aslef gets its way, it could become impossible to run on Boxing Day too.

Boris Johnson, business leaders and virtually everyone you can think of have condemned the strike, and all the other – equally ridiculous – disputes mounted by the RMT and TSSA over various non-issues in the last three months.

But one doughty champion of oppressed Londoners has fallen completely quiet over Aslef’s threat to spoil Christmas reunions for thousands of people. Can Ken Livingstone’s silence be in any way connected to the fact that his campaign has received thousands of pounds in donations from Aslef?

Indeed, in all the months of Tube strikes, Ken Livingstone has never once condemned any of the unions. Can this be in any way connected to the fact that Ken’s campaign for mayor is run out of an office in the Euston headquarters of one of the other striking unions, the TSSA?

Last week, Ken’s running-mate, Val Shawcross, was pictured supporting the RMT and TSSA strikers. This week the man in charge of Ken’s campaign, Simon Fletcher, attacked as “terrible” a Guardian leader criticising calls for “coordinated industrial action.” The side Ken has chosen in these strikes is a useful reminder of where his true loyalties lie. In the rather unlikely event that he is elected mayor in 2012, he will not be working for Londoners as a whole – but for some of the city’s greediest sectional interests.

(Update: The actual address of Ken’s campaign office – Walkden House, 10 Melton Street, London NW1, ie TSSA HQ – was removed from his website after my original post. However several of his campaign materials, available online, still show it, until they too are doubtless taken down; don’t worry, I do have printouts. The contact information now given on Ken’s website is a c/o Labour HQ,  in other words a forwarding address. Which rather suggests he’s still with the TSSA.)