Mark Steel: The view from the sunny side of the picket line

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The Independent Online

Apparently, all you need to fund services is to get big business to hand over the money, and they're so generous they don't want anything back. It can't be that simple, so maybe Labour have left one detail out of their manifesto ­ they're going to play the heads of multinationals at cards.

Why did no one ever think of this before? Apparently, all you need to fund services is to get big business to hand over the money, and they're so generous they don't want anything back. It can't be that simple, so maybe Labour have left one detail out of their manifesto ­ they're going to play the heads of multinationals at cards.

John Prescott will invite Richard Branson and the board of Balfour Beatty round his place for a game of poker, and by five in the morning he'll have cleaned them out of £20bn, which will pay for relaid track on the East Coast line.

Labour claims that selling off services to businessmen has already proved a huge success, which it has, if you're one of the businessmen. Connex South Central's AGM must start with the managing director boasting: "I am very pleased to say that the 7.54 from Orpington to Blackfriars is always sold out, with thousands of customers crammed on to the two coaches every day, so how can anyone say that this service isn't popular?"

Everyone, except for the Government, knows that privatised transport is crap. Because everything is broken. The ticket machine is broken, the heater in the waiting-room with a broken window is broken, the squashy pedal in the toilet that turns on the water is broken, the indicator board tells you to "Please listen to announcements" or "Hqycdserqzxbrrrrr ­ front four coaches only". And you're always likely to be informed you'll have to use the "Special" bus service, which is the most un-special object in the universe.

But it's announced as if you've won a prize. "Congratulations, you've won a special journey involving waiting for 45 minutes in a car park for a coach that gets stuck up country lanes as it chugs to places like Wiverton and Nesbitworth, always coming in at the wrong side of the station so the three awaiting passengers have to run across a footbridge clutching a suitcase."

This is all so popular that the next stage is to sell off the London Underground to the same companies that have made such a success of the railways. Which has met with a series of one-day strikes by the rail unions. So yesterday's London Evening Standard blazed a headline across its front page: "Rail Strikers' Suntan Boast", and told us that during the last strike, some pickets got a suntan on the picket line. How heartless can you get? You would think that if you were going to join a picket line, you'd have the decency to stop it from being sunny. Or at least wear a veil. Maybe this should be the next anti-union law ­ make it illegal to strike on warm sunny days.

The outrage against the strike, like Labour's plans, are examples of how out of touch the establishment has become. Twenty years ago, failing services were blamed on the unions. So Thatcher battered them, and now the services are worse than ever, while most people appear "apathetic" about an election in which all the major parties enthuse about taking that process further.

Especially anyone who's been on a privatised Inter-City train, so crammed that a visit to the toilet involves clambering over families sat cross-legged on the floor and leap-frogging over towers of rucksacks.

But worst of all, if you make it to the buffet bar you can see through to the first-class compartment, pristine and spacious, with serviettes and puffy headrests, so you feel like someone in Communist East Berlin gazing across the Wall, particularly when you venture too near and a guard ushers you back with a "Sorry sir, this isn't for the likes of you".

So the transport crisis will only truly be resolved when the passengers storm through to the other side, hopefully to find Kate Adie shouting: "These are truly historic scenes, as the passengers joyfully help themselves to the serviettes and the puffy headrests."

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