28 July 2022

How Keir Starmer can outflank the Government and the trade unions

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Keir Starmer is facing what appears to be a no-win situation, a Kobayashi Maru, for Star Trek fans out there.

Unlike his immediate predecessor as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, Starmer understands that general elections are won in the political centre ground, by making an appeal to those who voted for the Tories last time. This very idea was anathema to Corbyn and his supporters, who considered themselves too virtuous to stoop to the level of seeking the votes of people who had degraded themselves by ever voting Conservative. Their hopes instead lay with Green and Liberal Democrat voters, as well as the untapped resources of non-voters. Unfortunately for Corbyn, the non-voters were so named for a reason. And so two more election defeats came and went.

And yet Starmer’s march rightwards since winning the leadership in April 2020, while relentless and impressive, has not been without its obstacles. Can Labour even mount an effective campaign for government without the solid organisational and financial support of the trade unions? In the last 24 hours, even more so than in the last two years, Starmer has risked divesting himself and his party of the last drop of enthusiasm of the unions, having sacked self-appointed ‘Shadow Transport Secretary’ Sam Tarry for appearing at an RMT picket line outside Euston yesterday.

This wasn’t as iconic or as high profile a move as Neil Kinnock’s famous anti-Militant tirade at the party’s Bournemouth conference in 1995. Whatever you think about the rail unions’ case for higher pay, they are hardly in the same league as the toytown Trots who brought Liverpool to its knees just to prove a political point. And Tarry is no Derek Hatton.

But the incident says as much about what Starmer wants to achieve as leader of the party as Kinnock’s statement of intent to delegates did. Starmer has laid down the law – he may not yet have come up with a convincing narrative for his party when it comes to strikes or the cost of living crisis, but he has signalled he will not tolerate any challenge to his authority.

The problem for Starmer is that whereas Kinnock followed up his conference speech by spending the following 18 months setting up new rules and structures that ultimately removed the cancer of Militant from the party, Starmer seems to be without a similar strategy. Was his sacking of Tarry an end in itself, a performative display of toughness? Or did it presage a wider, long-term plan to reshape the party in his own image?

Given the weakness of the party’s response so far to the prospect (and the reality) of strikes affecting millions of commuters (‘The Government should sort it out’ is the agreed line), Labour might profit from outflanking both the unions and the Government by addressing the problem of pay from a different angle.

Network Rail, which owns the rail network’s infrastructure and is responsible for its maintenance and renewal, recently commissioned Nichols, a consultancy firm, to assess the degree to which new work practices would save money and allow for a thinning of the workforce on a voluntary basis. The industry is well known for the unions’ reluctance to accept new working practices that threaten to undermine their own power. Nichols’ report identified areas where the railways have fallen behind the practices of similar industries – aviation, water, roads and energy – in terms of workplace innovation.

Network Rail rostering, for example, was found to be inflexible and inefficient, with rosters agreed a year in advance and for teams to be rostered together rather than individually. Network Rail has stated that the changes required – individual, flexible, shorter-term rostering – can be made without the need for compulsory redundancies. ‘Around 1,800 jobs will go in total, but with voluntary severance desired by hundreds of employees, and with natural wastage, redeployment and retraining, the organisation is confident there will be a job for all who want one,’ it said.

Yet the unions remain a major hurdle to clear before any reform of the roster process can take place.

Similarly, other reforms recommended by Nichols are likely to be opposed by the unions. Currently, maintenance of the track is the responsibility of three separate discipline-based teams. When a team is assigned to a job, the whole team will travel to site regardless of the size of the task. And where a job requires more than one discipline (for example, signalling and track), more than one team will be in attendance, but will often work sequentially. This results in long periods of wasted time where team members wait for tasks to be completed by other disciplines before they can start work.

The Nichols report recommends creating joint multidisciplinary teams, as opposed to individual disciplines, with a reduction in the number of employees required to maintain the network, and associated costs.

‘Introducing such teams would also help ensure work can be carried out across geographic boundaries. Current working practices in the rail industry dictate that teams in one route won’t assist another in a neighbouring area even if it has capacity to do so,’ says Network Rail.

Analysis by Network Rail itself suggests that existing maintenance scheduled tasks could be reduced by up to half through better use of technology and data, reducing the number of manual inspections carried out by maintenance teams and improving safety

Instead of assuming a Pontius Pilate attitude to the railway strikes and imperiously demanding that the government ‘sort it out’ – a position that convinces no one – there would be major political advantage for Labour were it to lead the campaign for innovation in the industry, against the instincts of the unions. Here is an opportunity to show that Labour is modern, that it doesn’t fear change, and that it is willing to set aside vested interests in order to pursue improvements (and cost savings) in the industry.

This independent report champions exactly the kind of workplace reforms that would help fund any inflationary pay rises. Instead of fretting about whether it supports the unions or whether the unions support it, Labour now has an opportunity to assert that it’s unequivocally on the side of commuters and taxpayers.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.