Patrick McLoughlin speaking at the Conservative party conference in October 2012 in Birmingham. Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images.
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Patrick McLoughlin interview: From colliery to cabinet

Is there such a thing as “blue-collar Conservatism”?

Patrick McLoughlin has been a Conservative MP for a lot longer than he was a coal miner. His 27 years in Westminster dwarf the six that he spent at the Littleton Colliery in Staffordshire, but anyone who might think those working-class roots are forgotten is disabused of the notion on entering the Transport Secretary’s office in Pimlico, south London. Looking over the shoulder of the silver-haired, navy-suited gentleman who cheerfully greets me is an old campaign poster featuring the same smile on a younger face, beaming out from under the brim of a coal-worker’s hard hat.

The image dates from McLoughlin’s failed attempt in 1983 to overturn a huge Labour majority in Wolverhampton. Three years later he won a by-election in West Derbyshire. The personal journey from colliery to cabinet – combined with a quarter-century of commuting across the Midlands – imparts a distinct perspective to the Transport portfolio. McLoughlin’s determination to deliver the high-speed railway link known as HS2 stems in part from his urge to ensure that regions other than London get their share of investment.

“Nobody complains about the £16.5bn we are currently spending building Crossrail in London, or the £6.5bn that is doing Thameslink in London,” he tells me. “That is £23bn of expenditure in London.

“Now, London needs it, but actually the northern cities need their infrastructure, too. And over the years we’ve not done as much in the north as we have done in London and the south-east.”

To emphasise the point, McLoughlin stresses that HS2 has the support of Labour council leaders in northern cities. (The scheme was conceived under the last government.) But in austere times it is easy for opposition politicians to imagine other ways £50bn might be spent. While Ed Miliband backs HS2 in principle, Ed Balls is a known sceptic. “No blank cheques” is the shadow chancellor’s formula to express the conditionality of his support, an equivocation that infuriates the Transport Secretary.

“The idea that George Osborne would give you a blank cheque is for the fairies,” he says. “And the idea that now Ed Balls is going to become some virtuous guardian of public money – well, it’s about 15 years too f***ing late ... excuse my French.” There is a pause to allow for the restoration of ministerial language. “But, of course, we have to look at the cost.”

His irritation is palpable. Big infrastructure projects need cross-party support and Labour seemed to be on board before Balls “started playing silly buggers”. One of the reasons why the costs have gone up, McLoughlin says, is to limit the environmental disruption that spurs objections to HS2 in picturesque Tory areas. Tunnelling beneath angry voters’ backyards is an expensive business.

Meanwhile, when it comes to winning over naysayers on the Conservative right, McLoughlin has another line of persuasion. “I just say to the Eurosceptics when I come across them, ‘I find it outrageous: I can get to Brussels on a high-speed train; I can go to Paris on a high-speed train; but I can’t go to Birmingham and I can’t go to Manchester and I can’t go to Leeds. So, we’re connected to Europe and I want the rest of the UK to be connected in such a good way.’ ”

I wonder if his emphasis on bringing some infrastructural bounty to the north reflects a recognition that the Tories have electoral problems there. There are regions where voting Conservative is culturally taboo, even among voters whose political instincts are firmly to the right of Labour. McLoughlin concedes that it is a challenge. “The Conservative Party has done well in the north in the past and we need to rekindle that. We need to show that we are a party for the whole country.”

He recalls the bafflement of his colliery peers when he contested his first council seat as a Tory. “I never hid it. It was a source of fascination. A lot of the people I worked with were a damn sight more right-wing than I was, but they just voted Labour. If you asked them questions on defence, on taxation, on immigration, on law and order, they were to the right of the Tory candidate – the ‘Tory bastard’, as they would call him. But they just voted Labour when the election came.”

I suspect it doesn’t help if the Conservative leadership, in its eagerness to paint Ed Miliband as the plaything of trade union bosses, sounds as if it is waging war against institutions that have historically represented working-class interests. McLoughlin doesn’t disagree.

“There is a difficulty for us,” he says. “There is undoubtedly a difficulty that when you attack some of the [union] leaders, you get landed with people thinking you’re attacking ordinary people, hard-working people who just pay their union subs because they want the union to support them if they get into a dispute ... There is a big difference between the bosses and the members of the trade unions.”

So does he agree with those advocates of “blue-collar Conservatism” who want the party to adopt a different tone? For instance, Robert Halfon, the Tory MP for Harlow in Essex, has written that unions could be “soulmates” of the Conservatives and suggested offering discounted party membership to trade unionists.

“Yes, I buy exactly what Robert says on this. Robert represents a constituency that probably has quite a high union membership and he gets elected because they vote for him,” is McLoughlin’s forthright reply. “People like Robert and others have that special responsibility within the party to make sure that we get our language right.”

The bigger obstacle for the Tories when it comes to winning the votes of workers struggling to get by on low incomes is the rising cost of living and in that battle the Department for Transport is closer to the front line. Labour made the political weather in the autumn party conference season with a campaign to

force private energy companies to freeze prices, and soaring train fares rival ruinous gas bills as a source of public rage. It can’t be long before Miliband picks a fight with the privatised rail companies, hoping to cast the Conservatives on the side of unloved corporate interests.

“We will drive down on cost,” McLoughlin declares, but he won’t go down the path of profit-bashing. “One of the ways you drive down on cost is trying to get more efficiency in the rail industry, getting more people to use the railways. The truth is, if you look at the cost of rail tickets now, a huge amount of them are not sold as ‘turn up to the station and buy a ticket’. If you pre-book a ticket, you can get some really blinking good deals ...

“The profit of the train operating companies is around 3 per cent. I don’t think anybody is really saying that that is outrageously over the top.”

Similar arguments haven’t neutralised the controversy around energy firms. Perhaps the public is somewhere else entirely. Many people, I suggest to him, see John Major’s privatisation of the railways as a disaster – opinion polls have shown majorities supporting renationalisation.

That, McLoughlin says, is because people have forgotten how dismal the old British Rail service was. “They can’t remember what it was like.” There is a particular kind of railway nostalgia in Britain that often overlooks practical realities and the challenge of running 21st-century services, he believes. “You’ll get thousands of people turning up to watch a steam train go past but you wouldn’t want that going past your washing line any longer.”

As for Labour, McLoughlin suspects the opposition won’t reverse privatisation, because it worked. “In the 13 years the Labour Party were in power, they stuck rigidly to franchising because they could see the advantages it brought ... I was made a junior minister in 1989 and came to the Department of Transport. And at that time, British Rail was all about managing decline.

“If you actually look at the overall numbers of travellers during the time of British Rail, they were fairly constant. They managed demand, they put up ticket prices to keep people off the railways. Now, what’s happened since privatisation is we have seen a doubling of passenger numbers – a doubling!”

This railway evangelism marks a shift in tone from some of McLoughlin’s predecessors in the job. Philip Hammond, the first transport secretary in the coalition government, declared that his priority was ending the “war on motorists” – a phrase aimed at a different kind of Tory, the Top Gear-watching petrolhead who sees a speed camera as an abuse of his human rights and fetishes the car as the highest form of transport. McLoughlin disputes that interpretation, insisting the “war” in question was more about rising fuel duties and extortionate parking fines. But he also distances himself from the Jeremy Clarkson school of autophilia.

“I don’t completely buy Clarksonism, because I think one of the most important things is safety . . . If you look at the overall deaths on our roads, they’re coming down, but there are some very disturbing trends, particularly with cyclists. That’s partly because we’re seeing a vast explosion of cyclists in certain areas. You get some very stupid drivers and you get some very stupid cyclists as well. But the vast majority of them just want to get from their home to work safely.”

As a London cyclist, I witness a lot of crazy riding. Is there a case, I wonder, for stricter regulation, making it clearer that bike users have to obey the same rules of the road as everyone else? For the first time, McLoughlin’s affable patter dries up. His eyes shine with the wariness of a Westminster veteran standing on the edge of a political minefield and choosing not to stride in.

“That’s a very interesting area. I’d be very fascinated if the New Statesman launched a debate on the subject,” he says, laughing. “I’m sure we’d watch it with interest.”

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The North

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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.