Labour backs striking signalmen

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The Independent Online
THE Government should pay up and settle the rail strike, Labour said yesterday as an opinion poll revealed unexpectedly strong public support for the striking signal staff.

The poll, which showed 56 per cent backing for the signal workers against 20 per cent support for Railtrack, came as Dr Brian Mawhinney, Secretary of State for Transport, cancelled a holiday abroad in favour of one in the UK so he can stay in touch with the dispute. It entered its 10th week today, with a 48-hour stoppage that began at midnight.

The Mori poll in yesterday's Mail on Sunday took all sides in the dispute by surprise. It showed 54 per cent stating that the Government should put forward extra money to resolve the action, with only 33 per cent opposed, while 55 per cent backed the strikers with 34 per cent opposing them.

Frank Dobson, Labour's Shadow transport secretary, said: 'It is time this Tory government adopted Winston Churchill's motto: 'Trust the People'.

'Their judgement is right. The Government should pay up and settle the strike.'

To date, Labour's emphasis has been to attack the Government's intervention in June which prevented Railtrack from tabling a 5.7 per cent productivity-linked interim offer that may have prevented the strikes, while stressing that the strike decision was one for the signal staff.

Mr Dobson's comment was condemned by Bob Dunn, chairman of the Conservative backbench transport committee as 'wholly irresponsible' and 'a sign that Labour has not changed from the 1970s. They are still the striker's friend, backing disruption for higher wages.' If the Government paid up for the rail strike another so-called special case would be along next week, he said.

Mr Dobson retorted that he was saying no more than Labour had said all along - that the Government should allow the original 5.7 per cent offer to be tabled. There was no need to breach Government pay policy, he said, which stated only that public sector pay increases must be off-set by productivity improvements. 'It doesn't say off-set by future productivity - it just says productivity,' Mr Dobson added.

The political debate was matched by an increasingly bitter war of words between the signalmen's union, the RMT, and Railtrack as the company took out pounds 100,000 of newspaper advertisements to plead: 'Let's put an end to this madness'.

Headed 'the pain goes on', the advertisements condemned the latest stoppage as 'the most callous attack on the railways, affecting work and leisure travel, jeopardising business and cutting savagely into our investment funds'.

Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the RMT responded by accusing Railtrack of 'harassment and bullying' and of placing misleading pay figures in the advertisements.

While Railtrack attacked the union for inflexibility, Mr Knapp said the company was 'attempting to get something for nothing. The pain goes on only because Railtrack refuse to make any compromise at all'.

Dr Mawhinney's decision not to go abroad reflects Government concern that the strike campaign, which many thought would be losing public support, appears to be holding firm. Yesterday's poll of 750 adults taken during Thursday and Friday's stoppage showed public support strongest among frequent rail users, with a third of those who describe themselves as Conservative supporters backing the signal staff.