It’s time to ban public transport strikes

Published by freemarketconservatives on


“Strikes are ultimately a sign of failure. Every day there’s a strike it caused huge misery and inconvenience to Londoners… As mayor what I’d do is roll up my sleeves and make sure that I’m talking to everyone who runs public transport to make sure there are zero days of strikes.”

It’s hard to disagree with Sadiq Khan’s claim that “strikes are ultimately a sign of failure.” Unfortunately for him – and, more importantly, for Londoners – the current Mayor has set records for strike action under his Mayoralty with significantly more strikes per year than either Ken Livingstone or Boris Johnson. 

You might assume, therefore, that he would be eager to listen to any advice on how to stop strikes on public transport and that he might endeavour to at least appear to be making an attempt to live up to his ‘zero strikes’ pledge to Londoners. If so, you would be wrong. Sadiq Khan has been entirely dismissive of my best efforts, as the GLA Conservatives’ Transport Spokesman, to help.

So how can an injection of free market ideas provide a solution? 

The key to the free market is competition, which enables continuous improvement in the quality of products and services alongside consistent reduction in their prices. One area where even the purest libertarian will tend to see the case for state intervention is in the breaking up of monopolies. So when we look at the London Underground through that lens, two things quickly become clear.

The first is that there is little real competition on the Tube. Many commuters might prefer to avoid the Tube, but it is an intrinsic part of their journey to and from work. If there were two separate Tube networks serving the same areas then commuters could decide which one was better value, which one was more reliable, which one offered air conditioning or more comfortable seats or decent Wi-Fi or whatever service they most valued. Unfortunately, given the cost of Crossrail is now £17.6 billion and rising, the chances of a new Tube Network appearing any time soon is approximately nil.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean competition is irrelevant here. Measures such as boosting broadband speeds and reliability to help make it easier for people to work from home or improving cycling infrastructure can both give commuters more options and offer some competition to the Tube. However there will still be many for whom the Tube is still an unavoidable part of their commute, which brings me to the second way in which an injection of free market thinking would offer a real improvement.

Public transport in the UK remains heavily unionised. On the London Underground this gives the transport unions a quasi-monopolistic position. This means that strike action, under our existing rules, often has an extremely damaging impact on Londoners and it has led to a situation where the starting salary for a Tube Driver is over £50,000 – around twice the average salary for Londoners – with some drivers being paid over £100,000 per year. Meanwhile they receive 43 days leave per annum. Unions such as the RMT use strikes and the near-constant threat of strikes to ratchet up pay and create ever more generous employment packages. And the commuter always pays.

My proposed solution to this is a ban on strike action on public transport and a move to a system called binding pendulum arbitration, under which public transport employees could seek redress if they feel they have been wronged.

Binding pendulum arbitration would work as follows: 

  1. Transport for London (or any other relevant public transport operator) would negotiate with the relevant union as currently.
  2. If the union felt that its members had a genuine grievance, then it would have the option of balloting them. If over 50% of eligible union members vote in favour then the process would move to arbitration.
  3. Both Transport for London and the relevant Union would put their case to an independent arbiter or judge and put their respective offers on the table.
  4. The judge would then choose between those two offers. It would be a binary choice with no compromises.
  5. This would create a strong incentive for both sides to behave reasonably. If Transport for London offered a 2% pay rise, for example, and the RMT demanded a 10% rise, the former would inevitably be chosen.

The consequence of this change is that the unions’ monopolistic position would be undermined, commuters would be taken out of the firing line and the ratchet effect would be ended. There are plenty of other useful reforms that could be introduced. For example the GLA Conservatives have called for driverless Tube trains to be rolled out – but a ban on public transport strikes and the introduction of binding pendulum arbitration would mean a healthy injection of free market principles into a closed system and would be a huge step forward.

Keith Prince is a London Assembly Member for Havering & Redbridge. Follow him on twitter: @KeithPrinceAM

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