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.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories