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The Rundown: Rail Strikes Signal Summer Of Discontent

3 min read

Transport select committee chair Huw Merriman joins PoliticsHome reporters Alain Tolhurst, Eleanor Langford and Noa Hoffman to discuss this week’s national rail strikes, public sector pay, RMT union boss Mick Lynch’s cult hero status and what impact a double by-election defeat may have on Boris Johnson’s leadership.

As the RMT stage a series of walkouts over pay and modernisation, the prospect of a “summer of discontent” looms large, with wider industrial action and requests for inflationary-matching pay rises in other sectors on the cards.

Both Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson have warned high wages will serve to push prices up further, but as the cost of living crisis deepens calls from unions for higher pay are likely to increase. 

Merriman said he understood the position the Chancellor finds himself in. “The government has said that it will stand by people through the cost of living crisis, and part of that means actually giving people the wages they actually need to get through it," he said.

“Equally, if we're not careful, and our borrowing goes up, then it means that in itself can be inflationary, it can also put interest rates up which will cost people more with their mortgage.”

The Tory MP said what is needed is “to bring in productivity gains in return for pay rises”. He believed this is happening in the current rail negotiations, which “are all about trying to reform rail so that we can actually make it more productive, make savings and then use those savings to help pay the workforce and also fund the railway”.

“Rail is actually a good example of this in action,” Merriman suggested. But talks between the RMT, Network Rail and 13 train companies have repeatedly broken up without an agreement.

The union’s boss Mick Lynch has said the “government's hand” is influencing negotiation, despite ministers refusing to formally get involved. 

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said Lynch's claim is a “lie”, and accused him of "wasting time making false claims in the media”. 

Merriman also considered the possible fall-out from two by-elections held this week. On Friday it was confirmed that the Tories had lost seats in both Tiverton and Honiton, where the Lib Dems overturned a massive Tory majority, and Wakefield, where Labour regained a seat they had previously held for more than 80 years. 

Speaking ahead of the vote, Merriman predicted that the widely anticipated Tory losses could prove seismic for the Prime Minister. 

He said that while the vote of confidence in the Prime Minister earlier this month “was like a tornado that blew in, then blew out again, it's possible that the tornado blows in again when you don't expect it”.

  • Listen to this week’s episode of The Rundown, out now, for the full discussion

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