I realise that to be surprised by over-reactions in social media is akin to expressing shock at the rising of the sun each morning but I must admit I have been a little taken aback by some of the sentiments on my timeline in relation to the tube strikes. A lot of it centres on Bob Crow. His media image, which I think in part he plays up to, certainly allows for him to be a conveniently pugnacious caricature of a union boss. For the media there is a vaudevillian fairground wrestling aspect to a match up of Crow v Johnson. The Black Crow v The Blonde Bombhsell. (An image I wish I hadn’t conjured as I fear my dreams will now be haunted by these two men in leotards grappling like greased pigs.)
It is remarkable that the situation has been allowed to deteriorate to where we are at present and to some extent this represents a failing on both sides. However, the Union is using the power that it holds to cause public inconvenience in an attempt to bring Johnson and Tfl to the table to negotiate. Given the asymmetries in power this tactic is understandable.
Boris has painted the process by which the strike was called undemocratic. The irony in him saying this having been elected on a similar turnout should not be lost on people. In some of his utterances on the strike I think we have seen that once there is a scratch to the carefully cultivated veneer of amiable, Woosterish buffoonery we see his true Thatcherite colours.
In London Johnson has presided over cuts to the police and fire service despite election promises that this would not happen. This strike was precipitated by his desire to close all ticket offices despite previous pledges to keep them all open. The resulting loss in jobs represents a hefty chunk of the membership of the two unions on strike. In my view they are duty bound to protect those workers interests and I do not believe this was a decision they will have entered into lightly.
I believe that this form of representation is vitally important in our democracy. Increasingly, as party memberships decline we need people to come together to ensure their voices are heard. Unions are a part of this. What we normally see is those with the wherewithal being able to shout the loudest and ensure their voices are heard by their representatives. The unions were established to give a voice to those who had been marginalised. This role remains but they are not the only outlet for this.
The other night I went to the pre-election meeting held by St Mary’s Park councillors. The topics were varied, touching on everything from dog mess (not literally) to affordable housing. I was pleased that the council seem to be moving away from the misguided notion of removing the traffic barrier at the end of Battersea High Street thereby creating a rat run.
What was noticeable about this decision was that the councillors distanced themselves from the decision after vocal opposition from local residents who had attended the meeting to let their displeasure at the plan be known. The power of a small part of the local community working together was impressive.
For me though there was a stand out moment to the meeting. A teenager,Virgilio, from the local Surrey Lane estate, spoke to the meeting and asked for support from the councillors and the community to make sure the estate’s playpen was fit for purpose. Virgilio had come as part of the Surrey Lane People’s organization, a local community group. It was refreshing to see this group bring in local residents to this forum who may not have attended in the past. For too long it has been too easy for local representatives to ignore these citizens’ concerns if they are not involved in the processes of local democracy such as this meeting and voting in local elections. Unions provided (and still do) a vital way for workers to make their voice heard and progress their interests. These sorts of citizens organizations can do the same for local residents in often historically marginalised communities.
Local politics needs more groups like this if representative democracy is going to function as it should. The more that people from all across our society feel sufficiently involved and enfranchised then the better our society will be. At the next local meeting it would be great to hear from residents of Badric Court or Totteridge House similarly speaking up for their area and making sure their issues resonate as they should with those who are supposed to represent them.