The current battles over the tube & CATP.
(Based on a talk given by Dave Walsh to the london Federation of Green parties' AGM September 2007)
First, a bit of history. Some of you will have travelled here to today on the Piccadilly or Central line to Holborn station. Holborn station is a monument to Edwardian plutocratic greed- the fat cats of another era. It was built by American speculators, principally Charles Tysen Yerkes, the man who famously proclaimed that ‘it’s the straphanger who pays the dividend’. Much of the underground, from its beginnings in 1863, had been funded by private companies eager to cash in on the travel needs of middle- class Londoners.
That’s one side of the underground- the search for profits and the ensuing mixed results for passengers of unnecessary competition and jockeying for power. William Morris, whom some of you might consider an early green socialist, fumed about travelling conditions on the Metropolitan Railway in the 1880s, making a coherent attack on the fat cat monopolists who ruled over the system. You’ll find it on page one of his great novel News from Nowhere as well as in the pages of his newspaper Commonweal.
The other side of the underground is can be found in the growing campaigns around the need for public control of the underground in the 1880s and 1890s. This was often articulated by socialists like John Burns but found its way into the wider arena through people like HG Wells who wanted public transport to be efficient and a pleasure to travel on- a vision not achieved in 2007. There was a consensus by about 1910 that public transport in the capital was a mess and much hand- wringing in government circles about how difficult this was to reform.
Fast forward to 1933 and we find one solution in the formation of the first integrated public transport authority for London: the London Passenger Transport Board. The LPTB brought all transport services- buses, tubes and trams (not mainline railways) under the aegis of a public corporation, an idea pushed strongly by Herbert Morrison.
Whatever was wrong with this model of public ownership, and there were many problems, it provided a secure and strong umbrella for transport right through until the 1980s when Thatcher’s government began to privatise sections of it and to dismantle it following its removal from GLC control in 1984. We had thought that public ownership was permanent because it worked, but, post Thatcher, Tony Blair came along and introduced (and backed by Gordon Brown) the PPP system. That was the point when I left the Labour Party. I have been linked with the underground all my life, my father working on there as a ‘telephone lineman’ and then going onto the underground in 1978.
In 1999 we formed CATP (the Campaigan Against Tube Privatisation) to fight the proposed privatisation of parts of the underground and stood candidates in the first GLA elections. Since then CATP has continued the battle to maintain public ownership of the tube and to support the trade unions in keeping jobs and protecting conditions and services.
So where are we today? In the run-up to the GLA elections in 2008 the tube is going to be key. Over the coming months we have a huge opportunity to raise the issues and put forward our vision of a publicly owned and funded tube system.
There are three key issues here: firstly, the farcical collapse of Metronet, the consortium of companies which runs two thirds of the basic infrastructure of the tube. We have been out campaigning on Metronet and received a very favourable response- this has been during the RMT strikes which, unlike their portrayal on the BBC and in the press, are strongly supported by passengers.
Secondly, the complete privatisation of the East London line. The existing line from Whitechapel to New Cross will close in December and be upgraded and extended. Then it will be handed over to the private sector. This is an insult to Londoners and will; herald the further break- up of the tube system in a way similar to what’s happening in the NHS.
Thirdly, the proposed closure or running- down of many tube ticket offices throughout the capital. Ticket offices are often like local post- offices, a vital part o the local community and a place where staff can offer help and assistance to passengers. We know all about the impact of staff reductions on many rail stations in London and we don’t want to repeat this on the tube.
What CATP is calling for is the reclaiming the tube for the people of London. We can build a mass campaign linking transport workers, unions and passengers. At the start of the Blitz in World War II mass action opened the tube for shelterers and some 7% of Londoners used it throughout the war. This was a demonstration of the effectiveness of mass action, in this case spearheaded by the Communist Party. In the 1980s, after the banning of the GLC’s Fares Fair policy by Bromley Council and the Law Lords, the second biggest mass campaign Fare Fight was launched to defend the policy. Many of the good policies that have emerged in recent decades came out of Fare Fight but its real legacy was to show that transport workers and passengers can link up to fight for better public transport. It’s not always easy but it can be done.
We believe that another campaign on this scale can be launched in 2008. CATP supports the unions in their active defence of transport workers, including the recent industrial action of the RMT- and don’t forget that the TSSA white collar union voted by 76% in favour of strike action. We support their campaigns for lower- paid workers like the cleaners. We will be leafleting throughout London in the coming months and holding events/ meetings/ lobbies whenever possible. We hope we’ll get the continuing support of the Green Party Trade Union Group- you are of course affiliated to CATP and other socialist organisations in the capital. Having the right policies on public transport is one thing, supporting practical campaigns like CATP is putting your money where your mouth is. We need people to come out and help with leafleting at tube stations and we hope local groups will be set up throughout London to defend ticket offices. We look forward to your future support.