BUS WORKERS in Stratford, east London, experienced first hand last week the sham of New Labour's 'big conversation'. Around 100 drivers, engineers and workers in the canteen at Stagecoach's depot on Waterden Road heard transport minister Alistair Darling urge them to 'ask whatever they want'.
But when they repeatedly pressed him on issues like pensions and pay, Alistair Darling wasn't interested in any conversation. Bud Wright, a bus driver for 27 years and rep at Upton Park, was the first to tackle Darling over pay. 'I want to ask about parity with our colleagues on the Underground. Does anyone not agree we're worth that? Then there's the lasting legacy from the Thatcher government of compulsory tendering. In seven years the Labour government has done nothing.
'Also we've had our final salary pension scheme taken away. The Labour government has been no help about that.' Darling tried to sidestep this issue, preferring to make noises about the assaults drivers are facing on buses.
But his comment that 'the government cannot stand behind every pension scheme and give guarantees' served only to wind up the audience. Steve, a driver from Barking, said, 'You say you can't do anything about pensions. Well, I bet yours is protected. We had a pension scheme. It was stolen.'
Two other workers, a driver and an engineer, pressed Darling on the issue of the high cost of housing in London. His composure was beginning to fray. 'I can't sort your wages out-that's between you and your employer,' he said. He finished off by trying to reassure the sullen audience that 'what you say does make a difference'.
But an hour of the 'big conversation' showed New Labour is closing its ears to what people really want.