Exclusive: John McDonnell – ‘It’s not automation that’s the threat’


Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has told Transport Network that under Labour's plans for a renationalised railway there would be fewer strikes, as front line staff would be more involved in the management of the network.

In an exclusive interview, Mr McDonnell, MP for Hayes and Harlington, also suggested that automation is not a threat and that safety was the real issue behind the Southern rail strikes linked to driver only operation.

John McDonnell: British Rail never had strikes like these

‘Jeremy Corbyn and I have been supporting the rail unions with regards Southern rail and we believe there should be a negotiated settlement. We think the company has been obdurate and in addition, to be frank, its performance overall is unacceptable. We believe that as a result of poor management the best solution for Southern would be to bring it back into public ownership,’ he said.

When asked about wage structures under a nationalised rail system, he said: ‘If you look at what has happened in the past there have been proper, national rail negotiations with regards to wages and conditions. Even though under British Rail there was some industrial action, it was nothing on the scale of what we are seeing at the moment.

‘There is a feeling among the workforce themselves, [that] not only are they being exploited but also they have no say. When we bring rail back under public ownership, it will be managed in a way that the workers themselves will have a proper say about its overall management. Who better to listen to than front line workers about how best to improve the service?’

A key factor in the Southern strikes has been the issue of driver only operation of train doors.

Unions have called for guarantees on a second ‘safety critical’ member of staff after Southern pressed ahead with reforms to remove or change the conductor or ‘guard’ role - who had previously operated the train doors.

Southern drew up a list of ‘exceptional circumstances’ under which they would run trains without a guard.

Southern’s owner, Govia Thameslink Railway, (GTR) has pointed out that many other services across the country operate without a second member of staff, and highlighted an Office of Rail and Road report, which suggests driver only operation can be safe ‘with suitable equipment, procedures and competent staff in place’.

The debate raises the difficult issue of increasing automation in our transport network and the impact this could have on jobs, wages and safety.

Asked about how Labour would address the issue of automation, Mr McDonnell told Transport Network: ‘We have had increased automation since the invention of the railways themselves. In the past, when there has been automation, there have been negotiations between management and unions, and in most instances you will have found an eventual settlement.

‘What we are seeing here is almost a bloody-minded attitude by management to having proper negotiations. It’s not automation that’s the threat; it's safety that is the issue.’


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