Shadow transport secretary Michael Dugher speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester in 2014.
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Exclusive: Michael Dugher promises "public control" of railways under Labour

Shadow transport secretary toughens party's stance, vowing that "the public sector will be running sections of our rail network". 

After his appointment as shadow transport secretary at the end of last year, Michael Dugher was tasked by Ed Miliband with toughening Labour's stance on the railways. In an interview with me in tomorrow's New Statesman, the Barnsley East MP seizes the chance to do so. 

"The public sector will be running sections of our rail network"

To date, Labour has pledged to allow the public sector to compete with private companies for rail franchises as they expire. But Dugher suggests that the bidding process itself could cease to exist. "Privatisation was a disaster for the railways. I’m adamant about putting the whole franchising system, as it stands today, in the bin," he tells me. He adds: "The public sector will be running sections of our rail network as soon as we can do that".

"I’m not saying let’s go back to some sort of 70s and 80s British Rail, I don’t think sensible people are, actually," he says. "But I think we’ve got to make the starting point that privatisation was a mess, it was botched and what you’ve found is, in a sort of piecemeal way, little changes were made, often in response to horrendous events, whether it was Hatfield and rail maintenance coming back in house, or Railtrack imploding and Network Rail being set up, Network Rail now being on our books, we are dealing with the consequences of one of the worst decisions that any government has made. It’s not going back to a 70s, 80s model of British Rail but I think you can do far more to make some really big changes and that’s why I’m talking about a public sector operator, really, really important." 

Dugher also describes Labour's plan to establish a new passenger body in unashamedly socialist terms. "I’m going to be honest and proud about this: I want there to be more public control of the railways and we should just say it because, actually, that’s what the public think as well. We’ve talked about how the only people who have no voice at the moment in the running of the railways are the travelling public, the passengers themselves. 

"What you have at the moment is something that’s rather ironically named the Rail Delivery Group, which is basically Network Rail and the private companies, the TOCs (Train Operating Companies) and the freight and they get together and they stitch-up the running of the railways and they do it with our money. Network Rail’s on our books, there's huge taxpayer subsidies and investment going into the railways, but the industry want to stitch it up themselves and we’re not having that anymore." 

On Labour's attitude to the private sector: "This is not like 1997". 

Dugher contrasts the party's policy programme with that of New Labour: "This is not like 1997, that whole deference to markets and the private sector, that’s gone too." 

"Every time you get one of the boneheads at Stagecoach attacking Labour’s policy for wanting to regulate the buses, that’s every day they put Labour’s policy out there and that’s every day which gives us an opportunity to win the election because we can win this argument. I’ve likened Stagecoach to the energy firms, this is a broken market. You’ve had 2,000 bus routes cut since 2010 and we’re talking about a really important, vital local public service as well, so our policy on buses, or whether it’s on rail, these are about big changes." 

On a hung parliament: "Coalition government has been hugely discredited" 

Elsewhere in the interview, Dugher says of the possibility of a future Labour coalition with the Lib Dems: "There won’t be a hung parliament after the next election, there’ll be a majority Labour government, so the situation doesn’t arise." He adds, however: "If anything, I think coalition government has been hugely discredited by recent years and people’s experience of it because what does it symbolise, I think for about 10 minutes, famously in the Rose Garden, people thought maybe this is a new way of doing politics that’s different, two parties putting aside their differences to come together in the national interest. But within weeks there was a massive hole blown through that." 

In contrast to shadow cabinet supporters of proportional representation, such as Jon Cruddas and Sadiq Khan, Dugher also praises the first-past-the-post system and rejects the belief we are in a new era of hung politics. "Actually, minority governments, coalitions are pretty rare in our system, not least thanks to the great virtues that are encapsulated by the first-past-the-post system and the very sensible decision to keep that electoral system, so they’re pretty rare in British history. I’m not convinced by this idea that we’re somehow in a new era of minority and coalition governments."

"We should get after the Lib Dems and Nick Clegg"

Dugher, who campaigned for Labour in Nick Clegg's Sheffield Hallam constituency the day following the interview, also criticises those in Labour who advocated wooing the Lib Dems. "I think we should get after the Lib Dems and Nick Clegg. I’ve felt that even when there were people, misguided people on our own side, who felt that we should be cosying up to the Lib Dems, going back over a number of years. I was always one of the people saying you’ve got to take on the Lib Dems and you’ve got to beat them ... I think we can have a good go at Clegg and I hope people in Sheffield understand what a lousy MP he is". 

On The Beatles, curry and karaoke

When not engaged in political warfare, Dugher enjoys indulging his three other great passions: the Beatles, curry and karaoke. He names The White Album as his favourite record by the former (while praising Abbey Road for its medley). "In one sense it’s about the break-up of The Beatles, you can see the first time you’re seeing them emerge as distinct individual talents, you’re hearing the break-up of The Beatles.

"I just think it’s so varied, I like the acoustic side to it as well. There were loads of songs that they wrote in India, all the little stories behind them. A lot of my favourite songs are on that. 'Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?' which is a great, bluesy McCartney, short little record, he was sat there with a guitar, two little monkeys came along in the road and started making a number of advances. 'Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?' was about two monkeys shagging in the middle of the road. I think that’s fabulous, what a great idea for a song." 

"My grandad was Anglo-Indian, so I was brought up on Indian food," he says of his love of curry. "It was never just six pints of lager and a vindaloo. I find cooking, really distracting, really relaxing. Often on Sunday night I’ll tweet a picture of some masterpiece I’ve constructed in the kitchen, you’ll get some lunatic say 'why aren’t you tweeting about cycling?' -ecause it’s Sunday night and I’m having an evening off."

Finally, Dugher, renowned among Labour MPs for his singing abilities (“my party piece is probably ‘Come Fly With Me’”), offers his top karaoke tip: “You should always go to karaoke with Ed Balls because he doesn’t lack enthusiasm, it’s fair to say. You’ll always come across as a pretty decent singer if you go on just after Ed Balls. He’ll be a great Chancellor of Exchequer, he’s an enthusiastic karaoke performer but he’s not a great singer.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.