Shadow transport secretary and Wakefield MP Mary Creagh. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Mary Creagh interview: "We’ve got the biggest shake-up of the railways since privatisation"

The shadow transport secretary on Labour's rail plans, Alan Johnson's possible comeback and why she doesn't regret her comments on Thomas The Tank Engine. 

During a recent visit to ScotRail in Glasgow, Mary Creagh tried out the company’s new train simulator. “I did an excellent emergency stop,” she tells me. The shadow transport secretary’s handling of Labour’s rail policy has been similarly dextrous. Despite predictions of a vintage bust-up with the trade unions, consensus was achieved at the party’s recent National Policy Forum without the need for a vote.

“I’m very pleased; we’ve got the biggest shake-up of the railways since privatisation,” Creagh tells me when I meet her in her parliamentary office. Labour is now committed to allowing the public sector to bid for rail franchises as they expire, rather than handing the private sector a monopoly.

“It’s the end of an era,” she says. “Governments of all colours, post-privatisation, continued and persevered with the franchising system. I think 20 years of perseverance demonstrated the problems there are with what the Conservatives did with the railways.”

It was the emergency renationalisation of the East Coast Mainline in 2009 (after National Express defaulted on its contract) that gave the party the “intellectual and operational self-confidence to think ‘actually, why is that state railway companies from Germany, France, the Netherlands and Hong Kong, are able to run our trains and yet we don’t have our own state operator?’”

But while the party has reversed the bias in favour of the private sector, Creagh maintains that this has not translated into a new bias for the public sector. When I askher  why Labour didn’t pledge to automatically take franchises back into state ownership (as the rail unions originally demanded), she bluntly replies: “Because it could cost the taxpayer more, not necessarily, but it could.” Was it also because, as some suggest, Labour feared being portrayed as “anti-business”?

“No, that’s not it,” Creagh says. “If you want to get the best value, you go out and see who can deliver the service. It’s partly about price, but it’s also about quality and customer satisfaction.” But despite Labour’s refusal to commit to renationalisation, there is still concern among industry at its new stance. CBI head John Cridland recently argued that “the private market in rail has worked for consumers” and warned that “the in-house bidder has to have no advantage”.

Creagh tells me that that the public sector comparator planned by the party would be set up as “an arms-length body”. "You cannot have the department awarding contracts and then the department awarding a contract to itself. That is not the model. We’re at an early stage, we want to work through what it could look like.”

The Wakefield MP also promises change in the area of fares as part of Labour’s bid to reduce the “cost-of-living”. If elected, the party would cap ticket increases at RPI plus 1 per cent and abolish “the flex” that has allowed train companies to raise prices by as much as 9 per cent on some routes. “Our arguments over the last four years have made the government reduce ‘the flex’ and I think it’s now plus 2 per cent, so they’ve slightly shaved it, but we could still see increases of 5-6 per cent,” she notes.

“What that’s done is taken people, particularly in the south east - commuters in from Cambridge, Brighton, Reading - it’s taken certain cities into the £5,000 a year bracket. Before, £3,000 was the psychological point, now a lot of them are paying £5,000 and it is really, really challenging.”

But it was Creagh’s comments on another subject, Thomas The Tank Engine, that won her the most headlines. The shadow transport secretary was derided by the media last year after she suggested that the lack of female characters in the television series was partly to blame for the low number of women train drivers (who account for just 4 per cent of the total). 

Does she regret her comments? “No, I don’t!,” Creagh exclaims. “I was right. We have a workforce that’s 96 per cent male and I suppose I could have talked about getting more women into the rail industry, but yeh ... Thomas. It was completely distorted and it became a bit of fun over Christmas.

“Look, this is the problem in politics. If you use colour or metaphor to illustrate an example you get misquoted, misconstrued, painted as a raging feminist, manhater, and it was all just an epic storm in a tea cup.

“All I’d done was read the ASLEF document that talked about barriers to women on the railway and I thought, gosh, you know, some of those barriers might be cultural and that’s where we ended up. To be honest, I’d totally forgotten about it,  it’s obviously been buried somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind.”

After last year’s “summer of silence”, Creagh, like most of her shadow cabinet colleagues, is more optimistic about Labour's position. “These are very exciting times,” she says. “We had a very positive National Policy Forum, exhausting but positive. I have a fantastic Transport team.

“We’ve got a good set of policies now. Ed’s ‘Contract with Britain’ synthesises it all down into what a Labour government would do. The challenge is getting that out, making sure that people know and understand what we stand for.”

Ahead of the general election, Miliband has faced calls from some, including Tom Watson, Len McCluskey and John Prescott, to bring “big beasts” back into the shadow cabinet, with Alan Johnson the most commonly cited name. Creagh tells me that she would “love” the former home secretary to rejoin the frontbench, becoming the first shadow cabinet minister to support his return. “Would I want to see Alan come back? Yeh, definitely,” she says. “I think Alan’s got a huge contribution still to make to politics.”

But, she adds, “I also want him to keep writing his books, because they’re fantastic too. I read This Boy. I thought it was wonderful, I cried when I read when it, it was just so incredibly moving. You understand where Alan comes from in a completely different way, but it was also a beautiful tribute to the west London working class life that he had.”

She continues: “He showed a different world and a different approach, and a different model of fatherhood. But also the generosity of the people around his family, giving them a box of groceries because they never quite had enough food.

“I felt like some of that was certainly what I saw and see going around, particularly the food and the hunger side of things: Fair Share giving out three million meals across the country, kids turning up to school hungry, malnutrition on the increase and people making very difficult choices about where they spend their money and how they feed their families. I feel like some parts of what he was talking about are creeping back into certain parts of our country.”

For Creagh, the consolation is that in just nine months’ time she may be able to make a difference.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Not since the Thatcher years have so many Tory MPs been so motivated by self-interest

Assured of an election win, backbenchers are thinking either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. 

One hears despair from Labour not just about probable defeat, but from MPs who felt they had three years to improve the party’s fortunes, or to prepare for personal oblivion. In the Conservative Party, matters seem quite the opposite. Veterans of the 1983 election recall something similar: a campaign fought in the absolute certainty of winning. Theresa May talked of putting the interests of the country first when she engineered the poll, and one must believe she was sincere. However, for those expecting to be Tory MPs after 8 June there are other priorities. Theirs is not a fight for the national interest, because that for them is a foregone conclusion. It is about their self-interest: either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. They contemplate years ahead in which to consolidate their position and, eventually, to shape the tone and direction of the party.

The luxury of such thoughts during a campaign comes only when victory is assured. In 1983 I worked for a cabinet minister and toured marginal seats with him. Several candidates we met – most of whom won – made it clear privately that however important it was to serve their constituents, and however urgent to save the country from the threats within what the late Gerald Kaufman later called “the longest suicide note in history”, there was another issue: securing their place in the Thatcher revolution. Certain they and their party would be elected in the aftermath of the Falklands War, they wanted their snout in the trough.

These are early days, but some conver­sations with those heading for the next House of Commons echo the sentiments of 1983. The contemporary suicide note has not appeared, but is keenly awaited. Tories profess to take less notice of opinion polls than they once did – and with good reason, given the events of 2015 and 2016 – but ­imagine their party governing with a huge majority, giving them a golden opportunity to advance themselves.

Labour promises to change the country; the Liberal Democrats promise to force a reconsideration of Brexit; Ukip ­promises to ban the burqa; but the Tories believe power is theirs without the need for elaborate promises, or putting any case other than that they are none of the above. Thus each man and woman can think more about what the probability of four or five further years in the Commons means to them. This may seem in poor taste, but that is human nature for you, and it was last seen in the Labour Party in about 2001.

Even though this cabinet has been in place only since last July, some Tory MPs feel it was never more than an interim arrangement, and that some of its incumbents have underperformed. They expect vacancies and chances for ministers of state to move up. Theresa May strove to make her team more diverse, so it is unfortunate that the two ministers most frequently named by fellow Tories as underachievers represent that diversity – Liz Truss, the Lord Chancellor, who colleagues increasingly claim has lost the confidence of the judiciary and of the legal profession along with their own; and Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, whom a formerly sympathetic backbencher recently described to me as having been “a non-event” in his present job.

Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, was lucky to survive his own stint as lord chancellor – a post that must surely revert to a qualified lawyer, with Dominic Grieve spoken of in that context, even though, like all ardent Remainers in the government, he would be expected to follow the Brexit line – and the knives are out for him again, mainly over Southern Rail but also HS2. David Gauke, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and the little-known Ben Gummer, a Cabinet Office minister, are tipped for promotion with Grieve if vacancies arise: that all three are white men may, or may not, be a consideration.

Two other white men are also not held in high regard by colleagues but may be harder to move: Boris Johnson, whose conduct of the Foreign Office is living down to expectations, and Michael Fallon, whose imitation of the Vicar of Bray over Brexit – first he was for it, then he was against it, and now he is for it again – has not impressed his peers, though Mrs May considers him useful as a media performer. There is also the minor point that Fallon, the Defence Secretary, is viewed as a poor advocate for the armed forces and their needs at a time when the world can hardly be called a safe place.

The critical indicator of how far personal ambition now shapes the parliamentary Tory party is how many have “done a Fallon” – ministers, or aspirant ministers, who fervently followed David Cameron in advising of the apocalyptic results of Brexit, but who now support Theresa May (who is also, of course, a reformed Remainer). Yet, paradoxically, the trouble Daniel Hannan, an arch-Brexiteer and MEP, has had in trying to win selection to stand in Aldershot – thanks to a Central Office intervention – is said to be because the party wants no one with a “profile” on Europe to be added to the mix, in an apparent attempt to prevent adding fuel to the fire of intra-party dissent. This may appease a small hard core of pro-Remain MPs – such as Anna Soubry, who has sufficient talent to sit in the cabinet – who stick to their principles; but others are all Brexiteers now.

So if you seek an early flavour of the next Conservative administration, it is right before you: one powering on to Brexit, not only because that is what the country voted for, but because that is the orthodoxy those who wish to be ministers must devotedly follow. And though dissent will grow, few of talent wish to emulate Soubry, sitting out the years ahead as backbenchers while their intellectual and moral inferiors prosper.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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