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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The joy of only winning once: why England should be proud of 1966

We feel the glory of that triumphant moment, 50 years ago, all the more because of all the other occasions when we have failed to win.

There’s a phrase in football that I really hate. It used to be “Thirty years of hurt”. Each time the England team crashes out of a major tournament it gets regurgitated with extra years added. Rather predictably, when England lost to Iceland in Euro 2016, it became “Fifty years of hurt”. We’ve never won the European Championship and in 17 attempts to win the World Cup we have only won once. I’m going to tell you why that’s a record to cherish.

I was seven in 1966. Our telly was broken so I had to watch the World Cup final with a neighbour. I sat squeezed on my friend Colin’s settee as his dad cheered on England with phrases like “Sock it to them Bobby”, as old fashioned now as a football rattle. When England took the lead for the second time I remember thinking, what will it feel like, when we English are actually Champions of the World. Not long after I knew. It felt good.

Wembley Stadium, 30 July 1966, was our only ever World Cup win. But let’s imagine what it would be like if, as with our rivals, we’d won it many times? Brazil have been World Champions on five occasions, Germany four, and Italy four. Most England fans would be “over the moon” if they could boast a similarly glorious record. They’re wrong. I believe it’s wonderful that we’ve only triumphed once. We all share that one single powerful memory. Sometimes in life less is definitely more.

Something extraordinary has happened. Few of us are even old enough to remember, but somehow, we all know everything that happened that day. Even if you care little about the beautiful game, I’m going to bet that you can recall as many as five iconic moments from 50 years ago. You will have clearly in your mind the BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous lines, as Geoff Hurst tore down the pitch to score his hat-trick: “Some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over. It is now”. And it was. 4 - 2 to England against West Germany. Thirty minutes earlier the Germans had equalised in the dying moments of the second half to take the game to extra time.

More drama we all share: Geoff Hurst’s second goal. Or the goal that wasn’t, as technology has since, I think, conclusively proved. The shot that crashed off the cross bar and did or didn’t cross the line. Of course, even if you weren’t alive at the time, you will know that the linesman, one Tofiq Bakhramov, from Azerbaijan (often incorrectly referred to as “Russian”) could speak not a word of English, signalled it as a goal.

Then there’s the England Captain, the oh-so-young and handsome Bobby Moore. The very embodiment of the era. You can picture him now wiping his muddy hands on his white shorts before he shakes hands with a youthful Queen Elizabeth. Later you see him lifted aloft by his team mates holding the small golden Jules Rimet trophy.

How incredible, how simply marvellous that as a nation we share such golden memories. How sad for the Brazilians and Germans. Their more numerous triumphs are dissipated through the generations. In those countries each generation will remember each victory but not with the intensity with which we English still celebrate 1966. It’s as if sex was best the first time. The first cut is the deepest.

On Colin’s dad’s TV the pictures were black and white and so were the flags. Recently I looked at the full colour Pathe newsreel of the game. It’s the red, white and blue of the Union Jack that dominates. The red cross of Saint George didn’t really come into prominence until the Nineties. The left don’t like flags much, unless they’re “deepest red”. Certainly not the Union Flag. It smacks of imperialism perhaps. In 1966 we didn’t seem to know if we were English or British. Maybe there was, and still is, something admirable and casual about not knowing who we are or what is our proper flag. 

Twelve years later I’m in Cuba at the “World Festival of Youth” – the only occasion I’ve represented my country. It was my chance to march into a stadium under my nation’s flag. Sadly, it never happened as my fellow delegates argued for hours over what, if any, flag we British should walk behind. The delegation leaders – you will have heard of them now, but they were young and unknown then – Peter Mandelson, Trevor Phillips and Charles Clarke, had to find a way out of this impasse. In the end, each delegation walked into the stadium behind their flag, except the British. Poor Mandelson stood alone for hours holding Union Jack, sweltering in the tropical sun. No other country seemed to have a problem with their flag. I guess theirs speak of revolution; ours of colonialism.

On Saturday 30 July BBC Radio 2 will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final, live from Wembley Arena. Such a celebration is only possible because on 16 occasions we failed to win that trophy. Let’s banish this idea of “Fifty years of hurt” once and for all and embrace the joy of only winning once.

Phil Jones edits the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2. On Saturday 30 July the station celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final live from Wembley Arena, telling the story of football’s most famous match, minute by minuteTickets are available from: