LONDON — During his campaign for London mayor, Sadiq Khan promised that there would be “zero days of strikes” on the London Underground.
Asked how he’d tackle the now regular stoppages on the Tube, Khan replied: “As mayor what I’d do is roll up my sleeves and make sure that I’m talking to everyone who runs public transport to make sure there are zero days of strikes.”
However, Tube workers today went out on strike once again. Asked this morning why he had failed to keep his promise to Londoners, the London mayor claimed that his no-strikes pledge was in fact merely an aim.
“I don’t apologise at all for saying there shouldn’t be any strikes,” he told Sky News.
“I said I want zero days of strike when I’m mayor and I still stand by that. I want zero days of strike going forward.”
Now even if we accept Khan’s claim that his comments were a target, rather than a pledge, they were still a target that it was always going to be impossible to meet.
Today’s strikes are over changes that were ordered by the previous mayor Boris Johnson. Khan today described it as a “historic dispute”. In some senses this is right. London Underground workers are striking over ticket office closures and staff changes that were ordered long before Khan became mayor.
However, Khan is not new to this dispute. At the time that they were first announced Khan described the closures as “shocking” and said they would have a “devastating effect on the daily commute”.
Speaking in 2013, Khan urged the mayor to “not go ahead with these plans that ignore the needs and safety of local residents.”
Responding to plans to close ticket offices in his then Tooting constituency, he added: “These shocking plans will make using London Underground much more difficult and less safe.”
Any reasonable person listening to Khan before he became mayor would have assumed that he was opposed to the closures and may even reverse them. Had he done so, today’s strike would almost certainly not have gone ahead.
However, Khan’s election manifesto last year contained no commitment to re-open ticket offices and a review commissioned by his office once he became mayor also failed to recommend any such re-openings.
So far the only changes Khan has proposed to the “devastating” changes brought in by Johnson, is to promise an additional 200 members of staff in stations, a number which Tube unions today described as a “drop in the ocean”.
Now Johnson’s closures may well have been sensible. With the advance of Oyster cards and contactless payments, ticket offices were used by vanishingly small numbers of commuters. However, there are some signs that the closures have affected safety, with around half of all those responding to a survey by independent London travel watchdog Travelwatch last year, saying they now fell less safe since the changes. Many Tube stations are also being forced to close regularly due to staff shortages. With that in mind, Khan’s proposals to increase staffing inside stations makes sense.
However, this was never going to be enough for Tube unions who have vehemently opposed all of the closures since day one. This should have been obvious to Khan both before and after he made his pledge to ensure that there would be “zero days of strikes on the Tube”.
When Khan ran for mayor, he attacked his predecessor for refusing to meet with union leaders. Johnson, like Livingstone before him, always delegated such discussions to his officials. Back then Khan suggested that his own approach of talking directly to the unions would somehow prevent the now regular strikes seen on the Tube.
This was always unrealistic. The only way Khan could have prevented today’s Tube strike would have been to give in to all of the demands made by the Tube unions. This was never going to be something he was willing to do and he should have been honest about that.
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