The Tories have resorted to sharing misleading information over rail strikes

The government may have calculated that it is in its own short-term electoral interests to provoke in this way, but for the country, it is a very dangerous game to play

Hannah Fearn
Wednesday 22 June 2022 15:29
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Keir Starmer says Boris Johnson 'hasn't lifted a finger' to solve rail strikes

After 18 months of sitting on their hands, presumably wishing the dispute away, the government is now in full panic mode over the breadth and disruption of this week’s train strikes. That anxiety is in evidence all over social media, where ministers and backbenchers have been sent out to condemn the strikes in the strongest terms.

Since we’re in the middle of a cost of living crisis, with inflation higher than at any point in the last four decades, and the government is facing down a well-unionised industry that has been hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic, that’s actually quite a tough ask, even of its greatest shills. The solution? To resort to publishing misleading information.

Here’s a great example: on Twitter this week, Nick Fletcher, Conservative MP for Don Valley, trotted out the statistic that the average salary of Network Rail staff is £44,000 a year – “that’s more than teachers and nurses,” he said. It’s likely that the average Twitter user, who has a busy life and their own rising bills to worry about, assumes that most people in the rail industry striking this week work for Network Rail. But they don’t.

Network Rail is responsible for managing rail infrastructure: the stations, the rail lines, the bridges, the signal boxes. As an organisation, its own workforce is disproportionately highly skilled; they are structural engineers, infrastructure planners, senior managers, environment specialists, contract negotiators and utilities experts.

But RMT members, and the people you see when using the railways, are a much broader cohort. They are a legion of poorly-paid staff, many of whom are employed by the private contractors that Network Rail uses to manage the daily running of the entire network. These are the people who clean the station toilets, who pick up newspapers and takeaway wrappers discarded on the platform. They maintain the station roof, they are the catering staff, they are the dispatchers who keep passengers safe and timetables followed as trains come in and out of the station.

They are not earning an average of £44,000 a year, nowhere near it. Most earn far less than the average national wage and have been denied a pay rise for three years in a row. They are striking because by funding Network Rail which appoints the organisations they work for, the government does have a hand in their pay settlement. It can force an uplift, and so it should.

Fletcher and the government seem to be relying on a lack of understanding of how a splintered rail industry actually functions in their attempt to turn public opinion against the strikes. The public know that train drivers earn well. With all the sector’s essential staff on strike, the trains can’t run. The result? Most people think train drivers are also striking this week.

Apart from in a small number of areas, they are not. They are not represented by the RMT union, but another union called Aslef. But this finer detail has been missed by the majority and the £44,000 figure taps into the little bit of knowledge that most people have about train drivers: they earn just under £60,000. The government, it seems, wants people to think drivers are on strike because it will get everyone’s backs up, even though they’ll be irritated about something that isn’t even happening.

This misleading use of information seems to be designed to drive a wedge between working people at a time when communities are already fragmented due to the isolating impact of the pandemic, and struggling thanks to rising costs. The government may have calculated that it is in its own short-term electoral interests to provoke in this way, but for the country, it is a very dangerous game to play. It would be very easy to ignite a tinderbox right now.

The irony is that it didn’t even need to enter into such facile infowars. Opinion polls are divided on whether there is popular support for this week’s strikes depending on what question is asked. One polling agency asked if the action was “justified” and over half of respondents said yes, but when another asked “do you support or oppose” the strikes taking place this week, only 37 per cent supported while 45 per cent opposed.

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The government clearly fears strike contagion across the entire public sector, with discussions already starting about walk-outs among teachers and healthcare workers. With parents fatigued from repeated bouts of homeschooling and clear evidence that young children are lagging behind older cohorts due to the lack of school time they have had during the pandemic, the picture on public support here is very mixed.

Even teachers themselves show some reluctance to strike: a poll of teachers this week on the app TeacherTapp, which is used by the majority of UK teachers, found that only 39 per cent said they would strike if they were offered a pay deal of less than 3 percent, while 21 per cent said they would not.

There is not an overwhelming public appetite for a “summer of discontent”. After two years of being stuck at home, people just want their ordinary lives and freedoms back and have perhaps less tolerance than usual for further disruption, even while they feel the pinch themselves. There is no need for the government to be anything less than honest about the scale of the cost of living crisis, and about the levers it holds – and doesn’t hold – in managing it for the country. The government is unwilling to meet strikers’ pay demands, but it may also be unable to do so even if it wanted to.

If it had sat at the table with union reps over a year ago, some agreement may have been possible, given the size of the challenge and the potential for social disruption and unrest. And the country might have been more willing to accept such compromises. Now an uncertain autumn awaits.

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