The central plank of Tony Blair's justification for his attack on public services is that privatisation is more efficient. Yet as the experience of Railtrack has shown, and as was reported by Judith Orr last month (February SR), this is not true.
Today there is a sense on the railways that the Blair bubble has burst. This is seen not just in the fact that left winger Bob Crow has been elected as leader of the RMT, but also in the new mood of bitterness. Years of frustration among drivers on South West Trains led to them taking strike action. Now in the TSSA union we are finding there are similar signs of militancy--booking office staff on Arriva Northern are now being balloted in conjunction with RMT members. This is a major shift for a union that has a less than militant history.
This militancy is being fuelled not from left wing leaders but from the lessons of privatisation. When I was a rep for technical staff in the days of British Rail disputes were rare. Now we find we have to fight a continuous war with management, who constantly attempt to undermine our conditions. The behaviour of the bosses in the privatised industry compels workers to fight back or be walked over.
Also the privatised railway is massively inefficient. At no stage is common sense engineering allowed to be the prime factor in determining the planning of replacement and repair of railway infrastructure. Competing contractual interests ensure delay, confusion and mistakes. In addition the legalistic contractual responsibilities become the key focus for each company. This produces a thriving environment for consultants, accountants and lawyers. Safety, we are told, is the prime objective. But in practice tons of paper is produced between different competing companies, and the training and recruitment of engineering staff is sacrificed. It is no exaggeration to say that the cost of engineering work on the privatised railway is quadruple what it was when the industry was publicly owned.
With the National Air Traffic Control System now following Railtrack towards bankruptcy, it is beyond belief that the government are even considering privatising the tube and the post. Little wonder some trade unionists are beginning to look for a political voice other than Labour.