The New Statesman Interview - Gus Macdonald

You may struggle to get to work, but the minister for transport is quite clear: there is no crisis o

Gus Macdonald should be in the Cabinet. Who thinks so? Well, he does - or so he hints. At present, he attends Cabinet, but not as a full member. And when I ask about his position, he replies: "Rather like the Chief Secretary of the Treasury is a full member under the Chancellor, perhaps transport would deserve that, too, being such a large department."

It has certainly been the talk of Whitehall, the way that one working-class former trade union activist and dedicated leftist turned pro-business fixer (Gus Macdonald) has outshone another working-class former trade union activist and dedicated leftist turned Cabinet minister (John Prescott). Since the Hatfield disaster sparked the crisis on the railways, it is Macdonald - day in, day out - who has popped up on every programme going, from Today in the morning to Newsnight in the evening, soothing and eloquent. Compare that to Prescott. No wonder Tony Blair admires him.

And, sure enough, he is soothing and eloquent. I arrive via London's Victoria Station, one of the capital's main commuter terminals. As usual, my train is late and my blood pressure is rising. The apology is drowned out by announcements that the train to Epsom is not departing because no driver is available, and the 8.36 service from somewhere else is delayed by half an hour because of signal failure. Just another day on the railways.

But when I complain to Lord Macdonald, I am told that I couldn't be more wrong: "I don't think it's getting worse and worse," he says. "If you look at the statistics, that's not the case." Ah, the statistics. Lord Macdonald, I find, is hot on statistics. "Of the trains that should be running, 92 per cent are running, 50 per cent of the Inter-Cities are late and about 75 per cent are late by up to ten minutes on the London commuter lines. So, of 18,600 trains that should be running every day, there are about 500 that are more than half an hour late, so it's about 3 per cent . . . it's a constant struggle to try and keep things in perspective."

Phew. My mental maths hasn't quite coped, but I get the idea: I may be finding it impossible to travel by train, but I'm really rather unusual. He does admit that, for those of the 2.7 million commuters who are affected by the train delays, it must be "frustrating". At last. And how! But wait . . . the chaos on the railways is not, he insists, a big political issue. There are, after all, 27 million cars, while only 7 per cent of the journeys in the UK are made by train. "This explains the surprisingly low salience it [rail chaos] has as an issue. If you looked at the polls last week, you will see that only 9 per cent of people said that transport was at the top of their concerns and it barely made the top ten political concerns." Such nonchalance.

So maybe we've all been making a fuss about nothing. But if transport really is so unimportant as a political issue, why has Lord Macdonald suddenly stepped in to bang heads together by forming the Rail Recovery Action Group? This brings together all the main bodies involved in running the railways two or three times a week.

It seems we've been misunderstanding that, too. According to Macdonald, it's all about helping Railtrack to get things back to normal, not about waving the big stick over it: "I see no advantage in trying to bully or undermine a management that has got a very tough job on its hands. Contrary to a lot of the interpretation of it, we're trying to take the pressure off the Railtrack management."

The more one thinks about this last statement, the more extra-ordinary it seems. We are experiencing one of the greatest transport crises in modern British history and a Labour government is spending its time trying to take pressure off the privatised, well-remunerated and - until Hatfield - remarkably self-satisfied management involved. What is happening?

Here we come to the crux of the matter. Lord Macdonald does not accept that there is a crisis in the railway system. Given the past few weeks, this might seem akin to denying the liquidity of the oceans, but it turns out that there are real crises and other ones: "It's a crisis of confidence and it's been a crisis of investment, and it's been a political crisis in that the privatisation took place in the wrong way." After Hatfield, the problem with Railtrack was, he seems to think, that it lost its nerve. "I think there was a problem that meant we as a government had to try and bring confidence back into the system . . . this is an exercise in confidence-building which has helped Railtrack lift hundreds of restrictions, so I hope that'll be progressive and more of the trains will start running on time."

Well, that almost has you weeping with sympathy for Railtrack. But this view bears no relation at all to the world I and millions of others live in, where elderly relatives spend miserable, endless days on barely moving trains, where children aren't met at stations because no timetable makes sense, where ordinary people just trying to make a living or keep in touch are lost in a Kafka-esque nightmare on rails. Someone's to blame. Macdonald may be very good on the statistics, but he doesn't seem to begin to understand the mood, the intense anger in the country about all this.

Yet he is hardly a natural toff. A former marine engineer in the Govan shipyards, Macdonald was one of the postwar generation of red Clydesiders along with such legendary figures as Jimmy Airlie and Jimmy Reid. He points out that he was born into a Labour family, going back three generations, and was brought up reading Tribune, which he later worked for. There began a highly successful journalistic career, in which he moved into television as editor of World in Action, became both producer and presenter of a host of political programmes, and then managing director of Scottish Television. He has been a member of the CBI and the Institute of Directors, and three years ago was voted chairman of the year and corporate leader of the year by his fellow businessmen.

But he is also, he insists, Labour. Macdonald was first brought into government in Scotland by the late Donald Dewar, to improve links between Labour and business. Macdonald sees himself as a broker - "very much steeped in the Labour movement", but with an understanding of the City and an ability to talk to business. He recalls proudly how he delivered an extremely well-received speech to 300 members of the Institute of Directors, only to tell them that it was exactly the same speech, word for word, that he had delivered to the Labour Party conference three days earlier. Smooth, or what?

Perhaps the secret of being a good broker - which Macdonald undoubtedly is - is the ability to be all things to all men. He says he gets on well with Tony Blair, and with Gordon Brown, and with John Prescott, and he manages to be both pro-car and anti-pollution. Moreover, he is a minster who thinks his department warrants Cabinet status, while also being a loyal deputy to John Prescott - a man who'd poke your eyes out if you even mentioned breaking up the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Rumour has it that the two are not, in fact, fraternal - indeed, that Prescott won't make eye contact in the corridor, seething at the Macdonald hotline to No 10.

So is Prescott simply the burden he has to bear? "That's quite untrue," he barks. He insists that Prescott's huge department is not too big for him - "John is a big figure in his own right, and he does have boundless energy and he does involve himself in detail, and he's got very strong political instincts, too."

Macdonald's capacity for getting on with people is certainly remarkable. It extends even to that outcast from new Labour, Ken Livingstone. Macdonald praises the Mayor's initiatives, such as better bus services, the Crossrail option, the East London Line. "There are an awful lot of big decisions that the Mayor will be involved in where we'll be shoulder to shoulder. His ambitions are our ambitions."

Should Livingstone be readmitted to the Labour Party, I ask. Macdonald - ever the diplomat - is not falling for that one. Not one single off-message word will pass his lips: "It's not for me to say, I'm a mere Lords minister."

His own greatest achievement, he says, is the introduction of the government's ten-year plan for transport, bringing £180bn of investment into the industry. I point out that, for all the money, it's not going to do a great deal to make travelling much easier. Building more roads is surely going to lead to the last thing we need - more cars on the road. Here, finally, his emollience deserts him. Macdonald is unashamedly pro-car, telling me testily that I am out of touch for suggesting that more should be done to move people off the roads and on to public transport: "Most people are pro-car. What we're against is the bad things that come out of cars, which are pollution and congestion."

Well, I counter, you have only to look outside to see that both of those things - pollution and congestion - have got worse. Suddenly we are back to statistics: "There's been gridlock in London for the past 20 years." As one who has lived in London for 20 years, I insist that it is now much worse. "It is not, if you look at the statistics," he says. By this time, I am wondering if ministers should make less use of statistics and step outside their offices a bit more.

Macdonald is a tough, confident, experienced man, a sort that new Labour has rather few of. Given the hand he has had to play, from the fuel protests to the rail disasters to the sell-off of air traffic control, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston has traded very skilfully indeed.

But as we have gone on, I keep thinking about the gap between those reassuring statistics and the depressingly awful gridlock-and-delays transport I have to deal with daily. And I find myself yearning for the expression of fury and bewilderment on the face of a certain John Prescott. He, at least, speaks and sounds like the rest of us feel - bloody infuriated.

I came away thinking how clever Macdonald was - and he is. And how he really ought to be in the Cabinet after the election - and he probably will be. And how, actually, he'd been so persuasive that there was really very little to complain about when it came to transport . . . But then I was back in the chaotic scrum of Victoria Station, caught up in the garbled announcements about cancellations and delays, and I remembered why it is usual for Cabinet ministers to be elected politicians.

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