For a politician viewed with suspicion on the left, Andrew Adonis is a more complicated figure than he looks. He says when we meet that the move to take the East Coast Main Line into public ownership was a “pragmatic” one-off. But the Transport Secretary goes on to offer a surprising piece of New Labour revisionism: “If I could rerun the past . . . I would have tried to pull the plug on rail privatisation in the mid-1990s because the whole way in which it was done by the Tories was so fundamentally flawed. Actually, almost all those involved would probably take the same view now.” Then he jokes, “I think I detect that’s probably John Prescott’s view.”
What’s more, he says: “I suspect, actually, that if we could rerun the past, Tony Blair would take the same view.” Labour held the position it did after the 1997 election because the networks “needed further upheaval like a hole in the head”. But in fact, “the model was so flawed that if we could rerun it we would want to pull the plug on the Tory privatisation . . . What we would not have done, which was inexcusable, was to have systematically gone about destroying British Rail, which was what the Tories did.”
On the question of full nationalisation, he says: “Let’s be clear: though I love the railways, British Rail was not synonymous with a great passenger-focused consumer vision.”
Lord Adonis has been portrayed as an arch-moderniser since he began advising Tony Blair at N0 10. In 2005, after he was ennobled, he became the minister for schools. Nationalising the East Coast line was, he says, consistent with his ambition of “radical modernisation”. “So much about transport is basically about action versus inaction, rather than about ideological argument. And I am an action merchant.” He cites high-speed rail as “the project about which I am most passionate and the reason I came to the department”, and over which, “I’ll be quite frank, we have been too slow”.
Why is it, he asks, that “30 years after the French and Spanish started developing their networks, we still have only 68 miles of high-speed lines in England”? Not because of ideology – on the contrary, he notes, “the party is in favour” – but because it has not been a priority.
Adonis praises Ken Livingstone, the former London mayor and someone he calls a “complex politician”, because he created a “genuinely integrated transport system”. The secretary of state describes Livingstone’s work in London over the past decade as a second “golden age” for transport reform, and rates it on a par with the measures brought in by Herbert Morrison in the 1930s.
Adonis, who has found his niche as a reforming minister, has a growing if, to some, surprising influence on Gordon Brown’s government. Appropriately for a protégé of the late Roy Jenkins, he seeks a bolder approach to constitutional reform, starting with elected mayors. “What is the moral I draw from London? We got really bold innovation in transport, including a preparedness by a courageous politician to take political risks, because we gave him the political tools to do so. We haven’t been that bold in other cities. Where are the other elected mayors? Let’s be clear, there are differing views on this, but I would support a manifesto commitment which is bolder.”
Sitting on the edge of his seat, Adonis shows signs of frustration. “My own view on constitutional reform is, again, we should be bolder.” Labour has enacted more constitutional reforms than any government since that of his hero William Gladstone – “but have we done enough? No.”
He is impatient for further reform of the House of Lords: “We ejected the hereditary peers in 1999, a great reform – after all, they’ve been around since the Normans. But we’re now ten years on and we still have 92 hereditary peers . . . For that to be the case 12 years into a Labour government – well, now we’ve got to put a stop to that.”
As to measures due to be brought forward by the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, he says: “I hope they will be bold . . . We need to be bold.”
Adonis makes a suggestion that could not easily be described as self-serving. “We also – and I say this as one who will lose his seat in the Lords, and I am very happy to lose my seat – need to move as rapidly as we can now to a wholly elected second chamber. It is simply, in the 21st century, unacceptable to have a chamber of parliament making the law which is unelected. I feel that more strongly now as a member of the Lords than I did before. You simply can’t have as a basis for legitimacy a chamber which is essentially nominated . . . The only justification for it is as an interim stage, but I think the interim now has to come to an end. I strongly support moving as rapidly as practicable to a fully elected House, which I think means us declaring plans for an elected chamber as soon as we can and then making this a centrepiece of our manifesto – second only, I hope, to the high-speed rail line.”
If he were indeed to be ejected from the Lords, this former journalist and academic says he would have no intention
of walking away from politics. “I might stand for election. Let’s wait and see. If I stay in politics and that happens, I would stand for election and relish it . . .
“I’ve got no hesitation in putting myself up for selection if that’s where we are. By force of circumstance, because Tony wanted to make me a minister immediately after the 2005 election, I went down the appointed route. But I’ve never been afraid of political debate and argument. Indeed, I love it now and I think I can hold my own in it.”