Don't privatise the Tube by the back door, Mr Prescott

We'll modernise the Tube, but we won't be helped by the pitiful dullards who run the system now
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ANYONE WHO braved the Tube strike to come to my Monday night monster meeting at Methodist Central Hall would, of course, be left in no doubt over the immediate issue on everyone's mind - the undemocratic attempt to rig the ballot that will select Labour's candidate for mayor of London. However, it was also clear that the first priority that Londoners will want their new mayor to have is sorting out their daily transport nightmares.

Although London's traffic was worse than normal during the RMT's two- day Tube strike, for most travellers it was a question of just being a bit worse than the normal daily drudgery of trying to get to and from work, with a lot of the impact reduced due to the school half-term cutting the number of cars on the roads at crucial times.

In one office after another across London, people's main topic of conversation is no longer who's bedding whom in the soaps, but who had the worst nightmare journey into work that morning. When you get to work, your productivity will be down owing to the congestion and the tension of the journey. So far this year I have been trapped in two hour-long delays on the Jubilee Line, and it has got so bad that I routinely have to allow an extra 10 to 15 minutes on any journey to cope with unexpected delays.

Congestion is destroying our quality of life, even life itself. Just by breathing the atmosphere, Londoners double their chance of getting lung cancer, half of all the children who live on a main road have asthma, and every winter car fumes build up into a toxic smog that kills only hundreds if we're lucky, but thousands in a bad year. London certainly has all the worst transport problems that afflict Britain's other cities - but on a larger scale, simply because of the size of the city.

This is why John Prescott has decided to let London be the test-bed for his new transport policy, giving the new mayor powers to tackle congestion years before the rest of the country can expect them.

If London can't get it right, then other cities have little chance. London also has a slight advantage: Mrs Thatcher never got around to privatising our public transport entirely, in the way that devastated services in much of the rest of Britain.

It's the fear that Labour's public-private partnership (PPP) for the Tube is privatisation by the back door that has provoked Mr Prescott's old union into a two-day strike. When London's buses were semi-privatised drivers lost about pounds 35 a week from their pay, causing an exodus of many of our best and most dedicated public transport servants and creating a high-turn-over, semi-casualised workforce.

This strike would never have happened if London Transport's chauffeur- driven bosses had been prepared to give a simple guarantee that the PPP will not lead to cuts in wages and conditions (although I am personally in favour of cutting the conditions of some London Transport bosses by taking away their chauffeur-driven cars and forcing them to use the abysmal service they so cynically impose on Londoners). London Transport bosses, however, clearly hope to use Mr Prescott's new finance initiative as a cover for getting rid of more staff and bumping up fares at an even faster rate.

Our problems arose because the Treasury wanted to sell off the Tube to the highest bidder. Though John Prescott was able to defeat this scheme, he was blocked by the Treasury from raising the pounds 7bn he needs to deal with the backlog of Tube repairs he inherited from the Tory government in the most simple way - by increasing London's business rate and council tax.

The PPP is the result of a compromise, although really it's just borrowing money under a different guise. Even if the Treasury was opposed to funding Tube repairs by tax increases, there was no reason why it could not have given London Transport the power to borrow on the markets by raising a simple bond issue. It's still not clear how much more interest Londoners will have to pay because we are going for the more expensive option of PPP.

It may be a year yet before we see the final figures, and John Prescott has made it clear that PPP will go ahead only if those figures add up.

It's not surprising if, in this long period of confusion, trade unionists have taken industrial action to defend their jobs. This has led the extreme right to demand that the Government bring in legislation to ban strikes in the public sector. This classic barmy authoritarian approach overlooks two important facts. First, in those jobs where strikes have been banned, such as the police service, the state has had to undertake to pay a higher level of wages in order to make the ban acceptable to those it is imposed upon.

Second: after the right to vote, the right to withdraw his or her labour is the most important freedom the individual has. There is not a democracy anywhere in the world that does not have a free trade union movement, and it is significant that one of the first actions in any Stalinist or Fascist regime has been the suppression of free trade unionism. I'm confident that in the end John Prescott will find a mechanism that allows us to modernise the Tube, but he is unlikely to be helped by the pitiful dullards who currently run the system.

Ever since they escaped from the control of the GLC their main priority, apart from lining their own pockets with huge salary hikes and perks, has been to get rid of as many staff as possible. Conductors were sacked even though it meant a huge increase in the time buses have to wait at stops.

Tens of millions of pounds that should have been spent on repairs to Underground track and trains was wasted introducing automatic ticket barriers just so that ticket collectors could be added to the dole queues. Every time I'm caught in another Tube delay because of signalling or track failure, I think about the cost of those new ticket barriers.

Although the railways allow passengers to claim money back when delayed inordinately, to be really effective the cost of these rebates should come out of the salaries of the rail bosses and the dividends otherwise paid to shareholders so as to bring to bear "the spur of competition and the rigours of the market" if I may be so bold to quote Tony Blair's replacement for Clause Four.

If we could get our buses, Tubes and trains once again running for the benefit of the passengers, people would be willing to leave their cars at home. But that is the way it must be done. Improve public transport first, rather than impose a culture of blame and penalties on the motorists.