Transport reporter JEREMY CLACKSON on a breakthrough in the dispute on Southern trains, as the unions call off industrial action after agreeing to talks with the minister following much hard lobbying by commuter group ABC
Chris Philp, the Tory MP for Croydon South, drew contempt, derision and some anger from commuters across south London and the south-east overnight, as he attempted to claim credit for a breakthrough in the on-going dispute over Southern Railways.
It’s the second time in a fortnight that Philp has attempted to claim to have had a “role” in the dispute, at the expense of the commuter action group, the Association of British Commuters, who ran a crowd-funded legal challenge.
It has been alleged that some officials within the Department for Transport has been deliberately briefing against ABC since the threat of High Court action against the transport minister, Chris Grayling, forced him to issue a £13million fine to Southern operators Govia Thameslink (with the money undoubtedly to be paid out of the public cash GTR receives from their contract with DafT), as a consequence of the piss poor service that they have provided rail users over the last two years.
It has been DafT’s stated aim to “break” the rail unions, the RMT and ASLEF, who have opposed the government policy to get rid of guards on trains. A series of strikes and an overtime ban has compounded the misery of commuters, who were already suffering the mismanagement of the rail network by Southern.
And while some MPs, including Philp, initially identified Southern’s managerial incompetence and called for them to be stripped of the franchise, Grayling and his Tory colleagues at Westminster have for the past year taken a new line, that blaming the unions for all the railway’s shortcomings was the thing to do.
It is now emerging that the Tories’ updated positioning is also to deny the existence of the ABC commuter group, and certainly not give the activists the credit they deserve for helping to persuade ASLEF to call off planned industrial action for next month.
Having tried to say that it was all down to him that Grayling had issued the fine under the threat of a High Court judge’s force majeure ruling earlier this month, last night Philp was gracelessness personified.
First he denied that ABC had helped to broker the ASLEF talks, and then he tried to make out that it was campaigning by him alone that had won additional investment on the London-Brighton mainline.
Despite his responsibility for transport, Grayling has spent the past year steadfastly refusing to speak to the rail unions to seek a solution to the disputes.
But not in the Walter Mitty world inhabited by Chris Philp: “Chris Grayling’s offer to talk has been on the table for quite a long time and I’m very pleased it is happening,” Philp claimed last night, without offering an evidence that the transport minister had offered any unconditional talks.
“Shame MPs bent on union bashing and fail to grasp the complexities,” tweeted one commuter angered by the Croydon South MP’s attitude.
Many others were a good deal less measured in their criticism of Philp.
“It’s a really bizarre thing for him to do,” one observer suggested. “He doesn’t need to do this. But he’s clearly been whipped to follow the agreed, party line over the unions and his political ambitions must be so great, he’d do anything to satisfy the party leadership.
“But why be so churlish about the hard work and achievements of a commuter group, many of whose members live in Croydon and have managed to make some progress in this dispute?
“Perhaps if Philp and Grayling had provided half as much leadership as ABC, this whole, sorry and expensive mess would have been solved months ago. It’s clear that Philp and his Westminster colleagues have no real concern for commuters.”
For its part, ABC – whose judgement of Philp, who was voted by its members as “the most useless MP in this crisis”, is being proven more accurate by the day – suggested that by being so dismissive of the commuter group, he was being scornful of his own constituents.
“You’ve led the union-bashing rhetoric, been an obvious stooge for Grayling, and made dialogue impossible through your behaviour,” a member of ABC said.
With more industrial action looming, on Tuesday the ABC group met with the Eastbourne Chamber of Commerce’s Christina Ewbank and the new LibDem MP for the south coast town, Stephen Lloyd, for a press conference in Parliament.
Chris Philp was not present.
Lloyd got agreement from the union leaders to suspend action if they got a call from Grayling for talks.
And by yesterday afternoon, DafT had agreed to talks, and ASLEF and RMT called off their strike action.
The talks will be the first face-to-face negotiations to take place since the dispute began in 2015.
Chris Philp was not mentioned in DafT’s announcement of the talks.
ABC called Lloyd’s move “this bold act of peace-making from a backbencher”, which “has finally provided enough pressure on the government for the DfT to come to the table, be it 16 months too late.”
In a statement, ABC said: “The pressure around this issue had intensified since the publication of the Chris Gibb report, which clearly stated that the industrial dispute was under the Secretary of State’s ‘strategic direction’. The Association of British Commuters has been advocating for Chris Grayling’s intervention in the dispute since they founded their campaign in June 2016, and even demanded he intervene or resign.”
Lloyd said, “This breakthrough could not have happened without the continued effort from the Association of British Commuters. Their tenacity at not letting the Dft off the hook, all the support from their members, and crowdfunded Judicial Review were a huge assistance to me and others as we kept trying to resolve this long-running dispute.
“Today we have made real progress with the Secretary of State accepting the offer made by the two union leaders at my meeting in parliament to suspend their strike set for early August if Chris Grayling agrees to meet them in seven days. I hope now we can see the beginnings of the end of a rail dispute which has gone on far too long and caused far too much pain and frustration for committees and businesses in my own town of Eastbourne, and across the South East.”
Lloyd did not mention Chris Philp.
- The Department for Transport is pursuing ABC for legal costs over the case. The commuters’ group is asking all rail users in the south-east to contribute to their crowd-funding effort. Click here to find out more
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