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Voices: Rail strike talks are on – so why isn’t the government at the table?

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Negotiations on the rail dispute are resuming today, without the government at the table. It should be. Ministers should end the pretence they are not calling the shots.

Contracts for train operating companies, replacing franchises that didn’t work when the industry was hit hard by the pandemic, allow Grant Shapps to set the parameters for pay, terms and conditions and to oversee the companies’ response to industrial action.

The transport secretary is in process of the virtual nationalisation of the railways, although the Tories don’t call it that. (Network Rail, also involved in the talks with the RMT union, is already state-owned).

When Great British Railways is launched next year, Shapps’s own blueprint says: “Ministers will take key funding decisions and have strong levers to set direction and pursue government policy. The secretary of state will be responsible for the appointment of the chair and agreeing the framework for pay, including any performance-related pay. They will also be given statutory powers to set long-term strategy and have powers to issue guidance and mandatory directions to Great British Railways on any matter at any time.”

Shapps insists he would join the talks if that would produce a “one in a million chance” of resolving the dispute.

As ever, the Tories are trying to have their cake and eat it. By adopting an arm’s length position, they hope to avoid blame for the disruption. Boris Johnson didn’t deliberately provoke the rail strikes, as Labour claims, but he is determined to turn them to the Tories’ advantage by putting the opposition on the defensive.

They are yet another “wedge issue”, following what Johnson allies gleefully dubbed “wedge week” last week when he waged war with the EU and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Johnson professes to be a “one nation Conservative” and yet prefers “war, war” to “jaw, jaw”, to divide people rather than bring them together. There is a pattern here: the only way to resolve the rail dispute, the row with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol and the small boats crisis in the Channel will be through negotiations.

Probably all three problems will eventually be solved when the UK government finally realises it’s good to talk, perhaps under a different prime minister. Yet Johnson prefers to play party politics and thus prolong the crises, whatever the damage – sometimes to his own party.

Although he will hope to unite his fractious MPs behind him as he attacks the “union barons”, some Tories are unimpressed and doubt he will inflict much damage on Labour. Jake Berry, who chairs the Northern Research Group and backed the PM in this month’s vote of confidence, said: “By training, I’m a lawyer and I can tell you that the only way out of a dispute is by negotiation. I would call on all parties, including the government to get around the table, because this is going to have a huge negative impact on people’s lives.”

Labour, as usual, is divided over the strikes. Its frontbenchers struggle to stick to a common line in media interviews. Keir Starmer has a dilemma over whether to discipline the four members of his shadow team who defied his rather hasty edict not to join a picket line. To avoid looking weak, he will probably have to. But it is ludicrous to say these are “Labour strikes”, as the Tories manage to claim with a straight face.

Johnson is relishing his hard line, telling his cabinet to “stay the course” (another reminder that the government is in it up to its neck). Allies suggest the PM is worried a big pay rise for the rail workers would risk a 1970s-style wage-price spiral, though that is doubtful given the relatively small numbers of workers involved and as the RMT is demanding less than inflation.

The real reason ministers do not want a generous rise for the RMT to become a marker for public sector awards is that they fear plans to cut income tax by 1p or 2p on the eve of a 2024 election will go up in smoke. When Rishi Sunak promised “fair and affordable” wage rises last autumn as he ended the latest pay freeze, he had pencilled in a rise of about 2 per cent. That is a long way from “fair” when inflation is now rising by 9.1 per cent, according to today’s figures.

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Although opinion polls suggest the public are divided over the rail strikes, people will have more sympathy for nurses and teachers given their heroic work during the pandemic when the government announces a below-inflation rise for them shortly.

There is another reason why ministers should roll their sleeves up and resolve the rail dispute: if it drags on, as Johnson seems to think it will, the public will blame the chaos on the government of the day, not the opposition.

But the train companies and Network Rail are negotiating with both hands tied behind their backs by the government.

Network Rail argues that ministerial involvement would “politicise” the dispute, but it already is. A new offer of 4 per cent, less than the union’s 7 per cent demand, might be made in return for modernisation measures, but it’s obvious the move would need to be approved by the government.

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