Today’s Tube strike – the result of a long-running dispute about the closure of ticket offices and the resulting staffing arrangements for stations – was a chance for Sadiq Khan to show firm leadership and disprove critics who suggest he’s finding the transition from campaigning to governing harder than he expected.
Sadly for the Mayor he fumbled the task.
Over the weekend he issued a series of Tweets and statements which collectively rank as the weakest and most confused stance on strike action adopted by any of London’s three Mayors.
Normally those in government would be expected to call on unions and workers to accept the deal that’s been put forward.
They do this because as the ultimate authority – remember, Sadiq is chair of TfL and it acts at all times in his name – they’re presumed to believe that what’s on the table is the very best deal possible.
Sadiq however did not do this.
While he did say there’s “already a good deal” on offer, he failed to call on the union to accept it and implied that further concessions could be secured by telling them: “I am willing to carry on negotiations”.
Why would any union accept what’s currently on the table when the Mayor says he’s willing to give further ground?
And why wouldn’t they up the ante by inflicting 24 hours of misery on passengers in the hope that the resulting public backlash increases the Mayor’s generosity when they do rejoin talks?
Sadiq’s incredibly weak stance – born out of a campaign-mentality of wanting to be liked by everyone – will have emboldened unions by making it clear that more is achievable than has already been offered, and has severely undermined the managers he employs.
It has become unfashionable to say nice things about Ken Livingstone but Sadiq could learn a thing or two from our first Mayor when it comes to industrial disputes.
Long before he became fixated on Hitler’s views towards Jews, he told Assembly Members that Mayors and other politicians should always back up managers.
Sadiq’s latest press release says today’s “action concerns a historic dispute between the unions and TfL that started under Boris Johnson over the closure of ticket offices at Underground stations.”
In fact the origins go back even further than that – to the dying months of Kens Mayoralty when he first approved the closure of ticket offices.
Then, as now, unions were unhappy. Then, as now, there was industrial unrest. Then, as now, managers needed unions to know that the Mayor fully backed their stance.
Ken, seemingly unlike Sadiq, knew any hint that further concessions were possible would only undermine managers and prolong disputes.
A decade ago, in response to questions from former Liberal Democrat AM Geoff Pope about the original ticket office dispute, he said:
“In all the great debate between Tim O’Toole [Managing Director, Transport for London] and the trade unions whose side are you really on?
“If you want me to give the unions a right of veto over management that is fine, but I will have Mrs Thatcher come round to have a word with you about it!”
He’d previously told AMs it was important not to “reward trade unions who go on strike by simply giving them another concession,” adding: “I regret that the three previous governments always caved in and, rather than see Londoners walk to work again, bought short-term political peace whilst spurring long-term industrial anarchy.”
That Boris spent almost his entire term trying to escape the inevitability of the ticket office closures was frankly an embarrassment to witness.
That Sadiq is so clearly unable to tell the unions to accept there’s no cash or business case to re-open them and to take the deal already on the table is another.