Brexit, Corbyn and Trade Unions

Interview with Steve Hedley

RMT demonstration at King’s Cross Station in London (RMT Photo)

A broken-down consensus and a resurgence of socialist ideas – this is how Steve Hedley describes the current political landscape in the United Kingdom. Hedley is the Senior Assistant General Secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, the RMT. In this interview he guides us through the aftermath of the Brexit vote, the turmoil in the ruling Conservative government and the leftward steer of the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. The RMT is also one of the most militant trade unions in the UK, and Hedley tells us about the attacks against trade unions and the recent struggles of the RMT, particularly in the rail sector.

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Ricardo Vaz: How would you describe the current political situation in the UK?

Steve Hedley: We’re in a period of transition. For the best part of 30 years we had a Labour Party that was following neoliberal policies and at the minute we’ve got a leadership of the Labour Party, in Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, that is reverting to left-wing social-democratic policies. And there is a lot of resistance within the Labour Party, because most MPs (Members of Parliament) are wedded to neoliberalism, although they think of themselves as left neoliberals. Corbyn and the Labour Party did much better than expected in the last election, so in order to maintain power the Conservative government has been relying on the votes of 10 Democratic Unionists, which are a far-right party in the North of Ireland.

I think everyone expects Corbyn to be the next prime minister. The country is in turmoil, no one really knows what’s happening with Brexit, there seems to be no clear strategy coming from the government. The last estimate was that it’s going to cost 50 billion pounds to exit the European Union, and the indications are that the government will be trying to maintain a place within the European single market. And that was not what people voted for when they voted for Brexit.

The ruling party at the minute, the Conservatives, are in absolute turmoil. Because they’ve got about 30 MPs who won’t accept anything rather than a hard Brexit, they’ve got a large moderate section who are business-friendly and want a very soft Brexit, and those positions are irreconcilable. So these are very tumultuous times in British politics. I think we’ve now had a breakdown of the consensus between the two main political parties, and we await to see the results.

RV: On the subject of Brexit, the RMT, during the referendum campaign, argued for exiting the EU. Why was that?

SH:  Very simply, because the European Union was, and is, a rich man’s club. It was set up as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. NATO was the military arm and the European Union was the economic arm. It’s a trading bloc that is competing against other trading blocs. If you look at the history of the European Union, it has free movement of capital, free movement of labour, and a neoliberal economy written into the treaties. Therefore to be part of the European Union is to accept all of those things.

Steve Hedley addressing an RMT picket (Photo from Steve Hedley’s Facebook)

In a socialist society we would have no problem with the free movement of labour. But we’re not in a socialist society. People have been shipped around Europe to work on less wages and worse conditions than national workers. That’s not the kind of immigration we want. We want people to come freely and work on the same conditions as people who live here. But, of course, that doesn’t suit the neoliberal project.

Closer to home we have the Fourth Railway Package, which has now been delayed until the coming year. What that does is it compulsorily privatises, or at least imposes private competition, in all the rail networks in Europe. We’ve had a disastrous rail privatisation in Britain, and they simply want to legislate and export the worst possible system out to the rest of Europe. So for those reasons, we were against membership in the European Union.

RV: Let’s hold off on the rail privatisation and go back to Corbyn for a second. What does it mean to have someone like Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader?

SH: First of all, I should say that our union is not affiliated to the Labour Party. We’re not affiliated because we’ve been through a process where we actually got thrown out for supporting socialist candidates in Scotland. We’re now considering re-affiliation, and the only reason why we are considering re-affiliation is because we have hope that Corbyn can lead the party in the right direction. There are still many people within our union who are very suspicious, because they see Corbyn and the leadership as a minority within the Parliamentary Labour Party.

RV: When there were all these attacks from the media and from within the Labour Party against Corbyn two summers ago, there was a slogan “Defend Corbyn! Fight for socialism!”. Can you explain what this slogan entails?

SH: I think that Corbyn, for the first time in some 30 years, has broken the neoliberal consensus between the two parties, he’s pushing left-wing social-democratic ideas. He’s not talking about socialism in the sense that we would understand it, that we take the commanding heights of the economy and seize the means of production. But he is talking of what we could call 1970s social-democracy, which was a far better system than the neoliberal system we’re living in at the moment. So we would support Corbyn so far as he’s going to push those policies, and as a union we encourage our members to take part in their local Labour Party branches, to support Corbyn and McDonnell.

Jeremy Corbyn speaks in a NCAFC picket against education cuts and fees (Photo: NCAFC)

RV: The fact that Corbyn is viewed as such a radical, isn’t it also a testament to how far to the right the consensus has moved?

SH: Indeed. If you look back at the consensus after the war, the Conservatives were in favour of national ownership of railway and utilities. Not for any particular ideological reason, just because it made business sense that all those revenues would go into the budget. Then starting off in the late 70s we had neoliberalism, adopted in this country from the Chicago school of economics, we had basically a robbery of the national purse by rich individuals, and politicians who were supporting those rich individuals. That’s what we had, a period of people enriching themselves from the system, that’s neoliberalism in a nutshell.

That wasn’t the consensus until about the late 70s, early 80s. The turnaround came because of the defeat of a major struggle in this country, the miners’ strike, and in an international context where the Soviet Union was no longer the force it had been, so there was no ideological opposition either.

RV: And why is this consensus breaking down now?

SH: That consensus is now breaking down because people are not seeing their lives get better, their children’s lives are not getting better. We’ve now got job insecurity, millions of people are in precarious jobs, nearly a million people are using food banks. The majority of these are actually employed people, it’s just poorly paid employment.

There’s also a housing crisis. Walking past King’s Cross station you can see people lying on the streets. This is the fifth richest country in the world, I believe, and we can’t even house people. There are thousands of people on the streets. Young people have to stay in the house now until they are 30, 35 years of age before they can move out, because there’s no affordable housing. The position of the average person in this country has got worse and worse over the past 10, 15 years. That’s why there’s now a resurgence in socialist and social-democratic ideas.

RV: But while there is this resurgence of socialist ideas, the media, even those supposedly on the left like The Guardian, keep lobbying for a Macron-type centrist or giving a platform to Tony Blair. What do you think of that?

SH: Well, The Guardian is not a left-wing paper, it’s a liberal paper. They’re slightly to the left of the mainstream capitalist class and they act as a good shield for them and their policies. Even when Labour was a little bit left-wing in the 1980s the Guardian attacked them and supported the right-wing breakaway, which was the Social Democratic Party. But the mainstream media have not got the power that they once had in this country. They’ve still got a huge sway, there’s no two ways about that, but I think the internet and other electronic/alternative media have made it so that the mainstream media can no longer dictate to people like they used to. When people’s reality conflicts so deeply with what they’re being told in the media it jars people into having their own thoughts.

Jeremy Corbyn joined an RMT protest on “Transport Tuesday”, August 16, 2016, in London (Getty photo)

RV: Let’s go more in detail into the issue of trade unions. This neoliberal dogma has also seen a relentless attack against trade unionism. Can you talk about these attacks, and of legislation such as the Trade Union Act of 2016?

SH: The attacks have been coming since 1979, with the election of the Thatcher government, and they’ve increased in severity, particularly since the crisis of capitalism and the meltdown of the banks and financial institutions. This has meant a long period of austerity, where people’s living standards have fallen. I think it’s one of the longest recorded periods where people’s living standards have got continually worse.

This has led to a situation where even moderate trade unions have been forced to defend their members. The government, to stop that fightback and that resistance to their policies, has brought in new anti-trade union laws. In our own industry we now have two stipulations to meet after this latest legislation. The first stipulation is that for a ballot to be valid, 50% of the people that are entitled to vote have to vote.

For example, imagine a workplace with 100 people, if 49 people vote for action, and no one votes against it, then that ballot is not valid. If 49 people vote “Yes” and one person votes “No” then it is valid. That’s the kind of nonsense that we deal with. The second stipulation is that even when do get a 50% vote, then 40% of people have to vote “Yes”. Thus in this scenario you could have a situation where 39 people vote “Yes”, 30 vote “No”, which is nearly two-thirds participation, but still that would be ruled as an invalid ballot. That’s the reasoning behind it, they want to stop people struggling and fighting back against their economic policies.

RV: In effect they are imposing barriers on democracy inside unions…

SH: Absolutely. If they imposed the same barriers, the same stipulations upon themselves, there would be very few MPs left. There certainly wouldn’t be any local councillors left! But obviously they want to attack the institutions of the working class, they want to attack the trade unions, because they’re frightened that they will disrupt their economic policies.

“The Hand That Will Rule the World” by Ralph Chaplin in the IWW magazine Solidarity (1917)

RV: And is there any pledge from Corbyn and his team on how they would act regarding this legislation?

SH: Yes, Corbyn has said that he’s going to scrap the anti-trade union laws, all of them. That’s a really good aspiration; however, I’m not sure if the rest of the Parliamentary Labour Party would agree with him. They’re probably very happy to see them in place…

RV: They are responsible for some of them!

SH: Indeed, yes! One of the analogies we’ve been giving and I think is useful is the following: we can stand on the sidelines and shout “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!“, or we can get on the pitch and start playing, because if we become re-affiliated to the Labour Party we can support the Corbyn movement within the party, the constituencies, and the councils, get people there that are worthy of the name Labour politicians.

RV: In other words, move the struggle forward not just in parliament but also outside…

SH: Exactly. It’s always going to be a dual strategy, even if we had a Corbyn government. There’s no way that our union is going to lie down and accept that our members are going to have to sacrifice for anybody else. We will always be pushing that the bosses, not the workers, be the ones to make the sacrifices. We will push the Corbyn vehicle as far as we can and, if we reach a point where it’s no longer a suitable vehicle for us, then we’ll get out of it and get another one, or take over the vehicle!

RV: Let’s go back to the issue of privatisation. If you look up today any mainstream media outlet, any “responsible” policy maker will tell you that the services and utilities are better run and more efficient in the hands of the private sector. From your experience with the British rail, what’s your take on this issue?

SH: Well, in 2010 the Labour government commissioned a report called the “McNulty Report”.1 This study said that the privatised system was claiming more than three times the subsidies that nationalised system had. We have the highest fares in Europe, we have immense customer dissatisfaction with the system right now. After it was first privatised we even had a period with a series of rail accidents that killed many people. I think that privatisation has been an absolute disaster.

We have the French, Dutch, German national rail companies all making money from the British system, they’re shareholders making profits from the British rail operation. For example, you had the German department for transport issuing a statement where they clearly admitted that they were subsidising fares in Germany from the profits that they were raising in Britain! But we’re told that the British government can’t have a national railway in this country, they must be the only government in Europe that can’t make money from the British system! It’s an incredible position.

Greater Anglia picket line at Ipswich on Jan 10 for strike over safety and keeping the guard on the train (Photo: RMT)

RV: There have been some RMT strikes in the recent past. There was a strike on the Virgin Trains, there was a strike on new year’s eve, and there’s the issue of driver-only operated trains. Can you give us an overview of the current struggles in this sector?

SH: To increase the profits, the private companies, with the help of the government, are trying to get rid of guards from the trains and station staff. This has major impacts. There’s a safety impact, because if there’s a problem on a train or an emergency, the guards are in charge of safety on the train. They evacuate the train in an emergency, get people to safety, turn off all the electric components, make sure that there are no trains running anywhere near that train, etc., and that’s the first aspect of it.

The second aspect of it is accessibility, particularly for disabled people. Unless there’s a guard, they find it very difficult to get on and off the train. We have a situation now in Southern Rail where disabled people have to book their tickets 48h in advance if they want to be escorted on and off the train, we find this to be a clear discrimination. So for those reasons we’re opposing it. Obviously there are jobs involved, we want to keep jobs. Stations are being de-staffed, not major stations but smaller ones, with staff there only during peak times, so we’ve had situations with disabled people left stranded at stations. Those are the main two reasons why we’re opposing driver-only operated trains.

RV: In the face of these attacks against unions and privatisation of services, is there also some responsibility from some union leaders in accepting these changes too easily? For example, the role of ASLEF in the driver-only operated trains…

SH: The ASLEF leadership have been absolutely appalling, a glaring example of collaboration with management. The TUC, ASLEF and the management of Southern Rail met up2, in a meeting of which we were excluded, and tried to stitch up a deal. They tried to do a deal which affected our members, the guards, because they don’t have negotiating rights for the guards. And they twice put that to a referendum to their members, and it was twice rejected. So it was a humiliating process for the leadership of the TUC and ASLEF. It was third time lucky for them, the third time came with a huge “bribe”, a multi-year pay deal which gave their drivers a 28.5% raise, and unfortunately on that occasion the drivers accepted it. But both the TUC and the ASLEF leaderships played an absolutely treacherous role in this whole process.

RV: But this is a common strategy, right? Of trying to divide the union movement? This also happened during the miners’ strike.

SH: It’s a common strategy, but it also has to do with what kind of union you are. We’re an industrial union, we organise everybody from the person who makes the sandwiches, to the person who cleans the train, to the person who cleans the stations, the guard, the driver, the signaller, the technician, everyone. Unions like ASLEF are craft unions, they believe they are labour aristocrats, they’re only interested in getting money, and terms and conditions for their own members, even if it means selling out their workmates.

RMT campaign to keep the guard on the train

RV: This will be a very obvious question, but I assume you’re in favour of (re-)nationalising rail?

SH: Absolutely. We want re-nationalised rail, but we don’t just want to go back to the old system of British Rail. We want democratic control and accountability. We want workers to be a genuine part of the decision-making process, together with elected individuals from the community and transport groups and obviously members of Network Rail, or a similar public body, which would be accountable to the public and not just to a government bureaucrat. We don’t want to go back to the top-down system of British Rail that took strategic decisions without consulting with the communities and the people that it was supposed to serve. We want a democratic system, one that’s decided upon after full negotiation and consultation with the trade unions and the passengers.

RV: And this was in the Labour manifesto?

SH: The nationalisation of rail is in the manifesto, but not in this form. Not yet!

RV: One final question, concerning strikes. Whenever you read about strikes, they are constantly demonised in the media. You hear that strikers are “creating unnecessary disruption”, or that they “don’t care about commuters”. How do you react when you see these portrayals? What do you tell people?

SH: Well, first of all, no one wants to go on strike. 99.9% of people would rather go to work and earn a day’s money because they don’t get paid when they go on strike. Strikes are always a last resort, when the negotiations are finished, when we’re not making any progress negotiating. Or when management are pretending to negotiate with us on one hand, and implementing the policies that we are opposed to at the same time. So it’s like trying to negotiate with a crocodile while your head is in the crocodile’s mouth! You’ve got to first struggle and get your head free, and then you can negotiate. Because otherwise you’re going to be eaten!

That’s what we’ve got to get through to the public. Of course, the press are run by the capitalist class or the government, they are opposed to everything we do. They hate us particularly as a union because we’re a militant, class-conscious union, and everything we do is going to be pilloried and demonised. But that’s part of the territory, we expect that.

• First published in Investig’Action

  1. This report, called “Realising the Potential of GB Rail”, was commissioned by the Labour government of Gordon Brown in February 2010. The Conservative Party won the election in May 2010 and endorsed the study, which would be published in May 2011. See here for a summary report and here for the full study. []
  2. The Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) is a trade union representing train drivers. The Trade Union Congress (TUC) is a federation of trade unions in England and Wales. Southern Railway is one of the multiple private rail companies operating in the UK. []