John McDonnell MP
Let me clarify one point if I may. There has been reference to RMT donations to individual Members and the declaration of interests. I thought the declaration of interests was annual, but I make it absolutely clear that the RMT contributed to my constituency party during the general election, which I declared properly and of which I am proud. RMT members were the first to move at the TUC that the Labour party should be established; that union is part of our movement. I am proud to be supported by it and I am proud to be part of the RMT parliamentary group. That gives me a relationship with workers in the railway estate in my constituency, which enables me to speak with some authority—I try, anyway—on rail matters. Let me put that to rest: I am proud of the support that it gives to my constituency party.
We need to return the debate to what the dispute is about. I refer to the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman). The union has three demands in the negotiations so I will make three points. The first demand is for no compulsory redundancies—compulsory is the key word. There has never been a time when the RMT has not negotiated job losses, but there has always been a principle that they should not be compulsory. I remember that Bob Crow never lost a dispute, and neither has Mick Lynch, because they are sensible about the nature of the disputes that they get into.
The union’s second demand is to get some form of inflation proofing of members’ incomes, and who can blame it when inflation is rising by anything between 7% and 11%? That is what ordinary working people want.
Let us also be clear about wages in the industry, which are linked. The median wage is £31,000. Drivers are largely represented by ASLEF, so the vast bulk of people who we are talking about are station staff, cleaners and others whose wages range between £20,000 and £30,000. We are not talking about people on very high wages, so inflation proofing is important to them at the moment
The third demand is where we have some problems—I understand that. It is that when there are changes in jobs and conditions of work, they should be subject to negotiation and—this is the difficult bit—agreement. We know that this dispute will be settled at some stage, so the issue is how bloody it will get. What we all have to do, as I say on the RMT parliamentary group as well, is to facilitate an exchange that enables a resolution.
That is why today’s letter is important. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle is right to say, “Well, it was unconditional”, but it is unconditional from the Government as well. At the moment, it is important to just get everyone through the door. The Government have not put conditions on and neither has the union. The union has not asked for conditions from the Government, and nor should the Government ask for conditions from it. Often, in organising a ballot about industrial action, time limits are in place. At this time, when we are faced with the disruption that is there, an act of good faith such as sitting in the same room is important—it might not work.
The hon. Gentleman knows what these negotiations are like. My background is the National Union of Mineworkers, then the TUC and so on—I have been a trade unionist for the last 50 years—and in every sort of negotiation, the key issue is just getting through that door. Once we get through that door and are face to face starting those negotiations off, anything can happen. We have all been there, and we can have a bloody great row, but at least we are talking. That is all the RMT is asking for.
Let me just say that Members need to know the atmosphere at the moment. I have been talking at various union conferences—I was at Unison yesterday and all the rest—and there is a concern that we are going back to the 1980s, and I saw what happened in the 1980s. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), who is here, was an active miner at the time, and I was a member of the NUM head office. What happened then was that there was a Government will to somehow take on the trade union movement, and we got described as the “enemy within”.
If anyone thinks it is to their advantage politically to start taking the RMT on as the enemy within in this situation, they are sorely mistaken, because it is not just about the RMT. At every union conference I have been to, there is a real anxiety. There is an anxiety about protection of their members against this cost of living crisis, and I have to say that there is an anxiety about protecting themselves against some of the threats that have come from the Government—minimal services, bans on overtime and all the rest—which is inflammatory when we are trying to get a negotiated settlement.
I have talked at several trade union conferences and I have been consulting trade unions in my own constituency, and the big fear at the moment is that their members are facing a potential avalanche of costs coming at them, and they have had their wages largely frozen for 12 years, with some having in effect had a wage cut. They do not see any light at the end of the tunnel, and they see a Government now threatening intimidatory legislation to undermine trade union rights further, so then we ask the question: what do they do? All they can do—this is all that is left to them—is to withdraw their labour, and that is what we are seeing.
This is not just in the RMT. Unite has 100 disputes taking place at the moment. The general secretary of Unison has for the first time—I have never heard this before—said to Unison members, “Go back to your branches and prepare for action.” The PCS is in dispute as well. If we look at what is happening, it is because we have working-class people frightened for their futures and deeply insecure about their futures. They are faced with a Government who, to be frank, on this particular issue will not even open the door for a meeting. That is why the atmosphere has been so fouled at the moment. I just think that Conservative Members should know that this is not the time for braying speeches; it is a time for consideration and an element of responsibility to be introduced into this debate.