Eastbourne’s Lib Dem MP has been criticised for ‘having the nerve’ to take credit for progress in the Southern rail dispute by his Tory opponents.
The RMT and ASLEF unions have suspended strike action planned for the first week of August to tale up an offer from Transport Secretary Chris Grayling of fresh talks.
Their decisions announced yesterday (Wednesday) followed a meeting in Westminster the day before (Tuesday) between union leaders and Sussex MPs, including Eastbourne’s Stephen Lloyd.
Mr Lloyd, who was re-elected to Parliament in June after losing his seat in 2015, had called on Mr Grayling to pick up the phone and meet both unions face-to-face to find a solution for passengers.
He described the suspension of strikes as a ‘significant outcome’ and felt there was ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ for commuters.
However one of Eastbourne’s Tory councillors Tony Freebody said: “It is quite astonishing Mr Lloyd has the nerve to try and take all the credit for any progress in this long-running dispute.”
Mr Grayling wrote to both Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT, and Mick Whelan, general secretary of ASLEF, on Tuesday, offering fresh talks if they called off strike action.
Both he and rail minister Paul Maynard have written to union leaders making similar overtures a number of times since November.
Cllr Freebody added: “The facts here are quite clear. The minister is holding talks with the unions because they have halted planned strikes.
“It has been Chris Grayling’s stated position for months that all the unions had to do was call off the strikes, or indicate they were willing to do so, and he would meet with them.
“Quite how Stephen Lloyd’s input in this long-standing government position has had any bearing on this week’s welcome progress is quite beyond me and I urge Eastbourne residents to question very carefully the utterly ludicrous claims Mr Lloyd is making.”
He continued: “The ego has certainly landed back in Eastbourne and it’s growing to be the size of the town. Local residents need to look through the hype and the spin.”
The dispute between unions and rail operator Govia Thameslink Railway began last April over the introduction of driver-only operation on Southern services.
The change makes drives responsible for opening and closing train doors, but unions have raised concerns about the potential impact on safety and accessibility, especially for disabled passengers.
ASLEF members are also in a dispute with GTR over a new pay deal.
Speaking after the suspension of the strikes, Mr Lloyd said: “This is a significant outcome. Proper talks can now take place with the precise aim of bringing the dispute to an end. I want to thank Mick Cash and Mick Whelan for their attendance at the meeting on Tuesday and their willingness to work towards a solution to the Southern Rail dispute that will see an end to the unacceptable disruption caused to commuters in Eastbourne and across the South East.
“I also want to thank Chris Grayling, although it has been a long time coming, for taking up my call to meet the union leaders face-to-face. He’s now listened and has offered to meet with them. The unions have agreed, subject to the meeting happening within seven days.”
He added: “I was absolutely clear in my election campaign that I would work tirelessly to end this dispute. It was obvious to me that the refusal of the Government to meet with the unions was stopping any real progress and that both sides, the train company and the unions, were utterly logjammed.
“There is still work to do but, for the first time in well over a year, there is light at the end of the tunnel for the many hundreds of thousands of long suffering rail commuters in Eastbourne and across the South East. I made a promise to Eastbourne and Willingdon that I would make the Southern Rail dispute a priority.
“The privilege of being elected as the Member of Parliament for Eastbourne means that I have been able to deliver on that promise and make what I hope to be a significant breakthrough after a long and fractious 16 month dispute.”
On Thursday Mr Grayling said: “I remain committed to a strong future for the railways and one where the number of staff is likely to increase. I hope we can discuss ways in which we can maximise the potential of new technology and how it can improve services to customers.”