by Helen Pattison, Socialist Party London Regional Secretary
Across London, with train and tube strikes, and protests against bus cuts, a fightback to defend public transport in the capital has started. But it will have to be a campaign waged against the Tories, Transport for London (TfL) and Sadiq Khan, who have all been complicit in passing on cuts.
Around 80 bus routes are under threat. This represents about 12% of the bus routes in London. It’s a huge attack, with the only aim of cutting costs.
Already people are sharing pictures from the back of crowded buses on routes which are about to be closed. Fewer buses will mean even more packed buses, and drivers expected to rush to make up time on their routes.
Across the city, many bus drivers are part of Unite, and in the past have brought London to a standstill during regional strikes. In the 2015 buses strike, only about 10% of services ran. There was gridlock, displaying the huge importance of the bus network.
Back in 2014, the RMT, TSSA and Unite all took strike action on the same day against TfL’s plans. This year, on 19 August, bus drivers employed by London United, a subsidiary of RATP, will take action on the same day as underground workers in the RMT.
The last time bus drivers took action across the network, they won a London-wide starter rate. It should have prevented drivers being put on pittance starting rates, but the agreed starting wage is so low it doesn’t really act to protect drivers’ pay.
There are about 20 bus companies contracted to TfL, extracting profits. Nationally the bus companies make anything between £340 million and £506 million in profits every year – money which could be reinvested into the service instead of lining the pockets of private business. Go-Ahead reported profits of 9% in London for 2019, and 12% on its other regional contracts.
Drivers have seen first hand the impact of privatisation over the last 25 or so years. Companies bid in a race to the bottom for contracts, resulting in attacks on safety, terms and conditions.
While Boris Johnson was mayor of London, he set out the disastrous plan, continued by Labour’s Sadiq Khan, for transport in London to be funded by ticket revenue alone. It is now the only city in Europe where this is the case. Workers and transport users have suffered. The various companies have maintained their profits in this time.
When Khan took over, he said he would be a mayor who stood up for transport workers. Instead, he has vocally opposed transport workers’ strikes, implemented Tory austerity, and attacked transport workers’ pay and jobs – the inevitable consequences of TfL’s privatised franchising.
Reestablishment of public subsidies for TfL services could be used to save routes, reduce fares and give transport workers decent pay and conditions. The Labour mayor, as chair of TfL could fight for this, using the body’s borrowing and reserves and demanding the money from the government.
But, as it stands, to simply increase subsidies to outsourced bus companies would see whole chunks of public money siphoned off as profit. A fully public system, democratically owned and run by workers in our city could run things in our interests.
Clearly, we need a political vehicle which will support workers in struggle and fight for public ownership of affordable transport, in London’s City Hall, council chambers around the country, and in parliament. Labour is not it, that’s why we need a new working-class political party.
London bus protests spread
by Andy Beadle, retired Unite rep on London buses
Opposition to trenchant cuts in bus services in London is building. Recent weeks have seen some noisy and colourful demonstrations organised by Unite bus workers where important routes face closure. Strikes loom as pay talks falter at several London bus companies.
Bus workers made a long march (five miles!) between Enfield and Tottenham depots on Saturday 23 July. The demonstration was addressed by Unite national officer, Onay Kasab and NSSN chair, Rob Williams, among others.
On Wednesday 27 July, a hundred rallied at Putney Heath before waking up shoppers along Putney High Street. Local bus users and pensioners, who feared the loss of routes, joined drivers.
The following Wednesday, 3 August, drivers assembled at Millennium Green, near Waterloo Station to listen to speakers. Then we marched to Transport for London’s (TfL) Palestra offices. On arrival, we continued straight inside to greet them with a noisy rally in the big reception area, demanding “No Bus Cuts!” A further protest took place on Saturday 13 August, this time at Finsbury Park in North London.
During the pandemic, TfL inevitably faced drastic falls in revenue as passenger volumes declined. The government not only offered inadequate subsidy, but it added harsh conditions to the cash it did supply.
Sadiq Khan, as mayor of London, also heads TfL. Instead of meekly accepting this “deal” at the time, he should have alerted Londoners and transport unions to these measures and led a serious resistance to attacks on our public transport. Sadly but unsurprisingly, he capitulated to the Tories.