Ministers must take a “grown up” approach and meet union bosses to avert Christmas rail strikes, the new Transport Secretary has said, in a return to the “beer and sandwiches” charm offensive of the 1970s.
Mark Harper suggested the Government would soften its approach to union bosses, after months of ministers criticising Mick Lynch, the RMT general secretary, for his hardline approach to pay negotiations.
Writing for The Telegraph, Mr Harper insisted striking workers would not receive an inflation-level pay rise because it would not be fair to taxpayers and would fuel inflation.
But in a departure from the policy of Grant Shapps, his predecessor, he said a rail minister would be “available to meet the parties and to help facilitate the agreement that we all want to see”.
He also called for a “grown up and good faith negotiation” and praised those taking industrial action as “key workers who kept the country moving during the pandemic”.
His intervention comes after his first meeting this week with Mr Lynch, who said the pair had “started a dialogue” and had “got rid of the bellicose nonsense” of Mr Shapps, who once said the general secretary was determined to play the role of a “1970s union baron”.
Mr Harper’s article suggests ministers may be more willing to take the approach of Harold Wilson, who met with union leaders in Downing Street over “beer and sandwiches” to resolve industrial disputes in the mid-1970s.
Fresh strikes by the ASLEF union on Saturday saw the railways grind to a standstill, with drivers at 11 companies walking out in a row over pay.
More action is planned next month on four days the week before Christmas, with union members banned from completing overtime to compensate.
Any resolution 'must reflect economic climate'
Mr Harper said the disruption “means many Christmas and New Year plans to see family and friends will be cancelled” while “businesses, who continue to struggle post pandemic, risk losing sales during their busiest period”.
"Any resolution must reflect the economic climate we are in,” he said.
“We cannot simply throw more money at an outdated railway model and hope the problems go away.
“Nor can we make an exception of the railways by irresponsibly paying pay-rises that fuel inflation and not delivering plans for reform.
“Ultimately, it’s hard-working people and the most vulnerable that are hit the hardest by rising inflation, and it’s not fair to ask taxpayers to shoulder that burden.”