Mark Steel: Solving disputes the Boris way

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The Independent Online

The marvellous part about a transport strike, such as the one on the London Underground on Monday, is the reports on the news afterwards. This is where we're told that, "one plucky commuter beat the strike by breaking into the Imperial War Museum and stealing a Spitfire, which he used to ferry grateful passengers who'd been left stranded by the union in a swamp with little hope of ever seeing their children again. And an insurance clerk got permission from London Zoo to borrow a leopard, and rode on it to his office in Shoreditch. There was a slight hitch on the Camden one-way system when it mauled a queue for the 159 to Westminster, but he arrived only 10 minutes late, and was able to do plenty of filing."

Then they tell us how much misery has been caused, with stories such as, "one Ealing man was especially upset by the militants' day of anarchy. He was planning to commit suicide by jumping under a Central Line train to Ruislip, but had to cancel his plans as the line was closed for 24 hours." "It's so thoughtless of them," the man said, "I'd even bought my Travelcard in advance. It's such a disappointment, and now I'm going to have to go back tomorrow."

The phrase "tried to beat the strike" is used for anyone who travelled anywhere, but the aim of the strike wasn't to make everyone sit still all day. You might as well say you can beat a firefighters' strike by setting fire to your house and then spraying water over it yourself.

The strike was to demonstrate opposition to cuts in staff, and the reduced safety levels that would accompany this, such as halving the checks on brakes on the trains. Whereas the Government insists the unions must accept the need to "modernise", because checking brakes is SO last season.

But the main issue could become the vote for the strike. Because 79 per cent supported the action in the union's ballot. But Boris Johnson has declared this result wasn't fair as the turnout was less than 50 per cent, and new laws should be made to ensure strike ballots must have a higher turnout than that to be legal. This is a novel approach to democracy, as it makes abstaining more effective than voting against. Campaigners against a strike would say, "Make your vote count – don't forget to not vote." It's a rule that would invalidate lots of current elected politicians. To pick an example at random, the current Mayor of London was elected on a turnout of 45.3 per cent so he'd be sacked for a start.

The Conservatives say they're considering the proposal, which has clearly got little to do with democracy but because they don't like strikes. It would make just as much sense to say that anyone who didn't vote was considered FOR the strike. They seem to find it hard to accept that despite all the obstacles placed before the unions, workforces still vote for these strikes. The next proposal will be that if a strike vote still wins a majority, the Government is allowed to go "Right – best of three."

It's an attitude that might be fair if it applied to all areas of society, so that a vote in a shareholders' meeting wouldn't be valid unless a majority of the staff voted on whether a £2m bonus should be paid to the chief executive, or whether the office should be shut down so everyone had to move to Peterborough or be made redundant.

But also, Boris's commitment to resolving disputes is unconvincing, seeing as this year he's not met anyone from the unions on the Underground, which compares to two meetings he's had with Kelly Brook and one with Lily Allen. To be fair, with Boris he could have got them mixed up and thought Lily Allen was the RMT leader, and sat there going "Gosh, blimey, well then, it's really not OK you say, well yes we'll see about that Mr Crow."

And when he does finally meet the RMT leader he'll say, "Gracious, I'd heard you sang in a common accent but that rather takes the biscuit. So is, 'Our demand is simply a removal of threatened job losses' your next single then? Goodness. We're all in it together you know."