Call me a heartless neoliberal, but those taking part in the Tube strike are not victims

In fact, society may actually be more equal if their unions had less power

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In anticipation of the latest Tube strikes, I’ve made arrangements to work from home, and stocked up on Pot Noodles and fish fingers. As far as I’m concerned, they can strike for the rest of the year. Bring it on.

However, even if you can avoid public transport altogether, tube strikes have knock-on costs of a less tangible nature. What I find unbearable is the barrage of smug leftie virtue-signalling on social media that inevitably accompanies them. Whatever the circumstances and whatever the specifics of the individual case, a lot of left-wingers feel obliged to side with the unions during each and every strike, and make a big show of it.

It is not immediately obvious why this should be the case. If your aim is to signal concern for perceived victim groups, people on annual salaries of £49,673 plus generous fringe benefits (including 48 days of paid leave) make for unlikely moral mascots. It is well known that the starting salaries of tube drivers are far above those of firefighters, nurses, soldiers, teachers and policemen. The standard riposte to this observation is that this represents a case for raising the pay of firefighters, nurses, soldiers, teachers and policemen, not for reducing the pay of tube drivers. If we were all represented by unions as determined as the transport unions, the argument goes, then we could all earn as well as the tube drivers do. 

Except, we couldn’t. The average full-time salary in this country is about £32,300. Call me a heartless neoliberal, but no matter how strong the union movement, we will never all earn more than 50 per cent above average. Mathematics has a neoliberal bias. In fact, if your aim is to compress the income distribution, you could make a respectable case for reducing the bargaining power of the transport unions. Tube drivers’ salaries place them in the top decile of the earnings distribution. If their earnings moved closer to what they could realistically earn in comparable occupations, and if the difference were passed on to commuters in the form of lower fares, Britain would become a slightly more equal place.

So why do large parts of the left feel obliged to defend them? To answer this question, we need to have a look at what determines the living standards of ordinary people. Why is a manual labourer in 2015 so much better off than a manual labourer in 1915, and why is a manual labourer in the UK so much better off than a manual labourer in Bangladesh?

Different political camps would answer this question in fundamentally different ways. People who broadly hold free markets views would argue that with the right set of institutions in place, an economy’s stock of physical and human capital grows over time, which, together with technological progress and organisational innovation, raises the productivity of labour.

Improvements in logistics and communication also enable wider, more sophisticated patterns of specialisation and exchange. We get better at matching the right kind of labour with the right kind of capital. This brings about higher wages, including for the low-skilled.

Meanwhile, large parts of the left believe that progress in the lives of ordinary people is the result of power struggles. It does not just happen "naturally", it has to be actively fought for, wrestled from the hands of a reluctant elite. When it comes to narratives, supporters of capitalism would talk about the first railroad, the first telegraph, the first transatlantic flight and the first mass-produced car, about computerisation and digitalisation, about the emergence of discounters and no-frills airlines. Left-wingers would talk about social movements, trade unions and protest groups, about factory acts, public housing and the creation of the NHS.

The two narratives are not mutually exclusive, but they differ so vastly in emphasis that in can be considered a difference in principle. This is why, when tube drivers go on strike, supporters of the market economy see a cosseted group defending their privileges, while left-wingers see an episode of a historic struggle that we all owe a lot to.

This, in short, is why disagreements over tube are no more likely to go away than the strikes themselves. Which is fine with me. I’ve got my Pot Noodles.