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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Guns and bullets and nothing more: The Syrian Kurds fighting Isis

They are the US-led coalition's main ally in the fight against Isis, but as Turkey keeps bombing them, the sense of betrayal is growing.

A sense of a betrayal pervaded the funeral, giving an angry edge to the mourners’ grief. The Kurds were used to the Turks killing their people. It was almost expected. What was different in their attitude to the killing of the 14 men and women buried that hot afternoon in the cemetery at Derik, among 20 fighters killed by Turkish air strikes just three days earlier, was that it had occurred under the watchful auspices of the Syrian Kurds’ big ally: America.

So when a US armoured patrol arrived at the edge of the cemetery in northern Syria, the American troops had been met with sullen stares and silence. I watched Aldar Khalil, one of the most influential advisers with the local Syrian Kurdish administration, approach the US army officer while a cordon of armed YPG fighters surrounded the patrol to keep civilians away.

“I told the American officer how angry people felt,” he told me afterwards, “and advised them that as soon as they had achieved what they wanted to at the funeral they should go. Emotions are high. People expected more.”

The air strikes had been far more significant than anything previously visited by the Turks on the YPG, the Syrian Kurd fighting group that has become the Americans’ primary ally in the forthcoming battle to capture the city of Raqqa from Isis. Operations to shape the battlefield around the militants’ capital are ongoing, and some sections of the front YPG units, the mainstay of the anti-Isis alliance, are now less than four kilometres from the outskirts of Raqqa.

However, the entire operation was thrown into jeopardy early on the morning of 25 April, just days before US officials confirmed that President Donald Trump had authorised the direct supply of weapons to the YPG. Turkish jets repeatedly bombed the YPG’s main command centre on Qarachok Mountain, just above the small town of Derik, destroying ammunition stocks, a communications centre and accommodation blocks. The dead included Mohammed Khalil, a top commander involved in planning the Raqqa operation.

The attack immediately drove a wedge between US troops and the Syrian Kurds, who felt they had been knowingly betrayed by the United States, which had acted as the YPG’s ally in the fight for Raqqa with the one hand while allowing its fellow Nato and coalition member Turkey to stab the YPG in the back with the other.

“There were a couple of days after the Qarachok strikes when several of our leading commanders, and many of our people, put on the pressure to withdraw our forces from the Raqqa front altogether and send them to protect our borders with Turkey,” Khalil, the Syrian Kurd adviser, told me. “They wanted to stop the Raqqa operation. We had to explain very carefully that this was [the Turkish president] Erdogan’s goal, and to persuade them to continue.”

Senior YPG commanders suffered deep personal losses in the Turkish air strikes. Among the mourners at Derik was ­Rojda Felat, a joint commander of the overall Raqqa operation. Standing beside the grave of Jiyan Ahmed, one of her closest friends, she clasped a portrait of the dead woman in her hands.

“She survived fighting Da’esh [Isis] in Kobane, in Tal Hamis and Manbij,” Felat said. “She survived all that, only to be killed by a Turkish jet.”

Later, illustrating the fragile contradictions of the coalition’s alliances, Felat explained that she had gone to sleep in the early hours of 25 April, after finishing a series of late-night planning meetings with British and US officers at the forward headquarters she shares with them on the north side of Lake Assad, Syria’s largest lake, when word of the air strikes came through.

“It was very clear to me that the Americans I was with had not known about the air strikes,” said Felat, 35, a legendary figure among Syria’s Kurds whose role models include Napoleon and the socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. “They could see how upset and angry I was to learn in an instant that so many friends had been killed, and the Americans dealt with that compassionately. I was extremely distressed, to say the least,” she added, looking away.

Within a few hours of the strikes, Felat was on a US helicopter alongside US officers flown to Qarachok to assess the damage in a very public display of US-YPG solidarity.

The Americans were quick to try to mitigate the damage to their Kurdish allies. A further 250 US troops were sent into Syria to run observation patrols along the Syria-Turkey border in an attempt to de-escalate the tension, bringing the number of US troops there to more than 1,200. In addition, US weapons consignments to the Syrian Kurds increased “manifold” in a matter of days, Felat said.

Yet these measures are unlikely to stop the fallout from a strategy – that of arming the Syrian Kurds – which risks broadening Turkey’s overall conflict with the YPG, unless certain crucial political objectives are attained parallel to the push on Raqqa.

Turkey, at present regarded as a mercurial and mendacious “frenemy” by Western coalition commanders, perceives the YPG as a terrorist organisation that is an extension of its arch-enemy the PKK, a left-wing group demanding greater auton­omy within Turkey. Hence Ankara’s deep concern that the YPG’s growing power in Syria will strengthen the PKK inside Turkey. The Turks would rather their own proxies in Syria – an unattractive hotchpotch of Syrian Islamist groups mistrusted by the West – reaped the rewards for the capture of Raqqa than the YPG.

Although US commanders find the YPG more reliable and militarily effective than the Turkish-backed Islamist groups, the Syrian Kurds are a non-state actor, a definition that ensures B-grade status in the cut and thrust of foreign policy. Nevertheless, recalling the painful lesson of 2003 – that military success is impotent unless it serves a political vision – the US should be devoting energy to imposing conditions on the supply of arms to the YPG as a way of containing Turkish aggression against their ally.

Salient conditions could include the YPG disassociating from the PKK; a cessation in repressing rival political parties in YPG areas; the withdrawal of YPG fighters from northern Iraq, where they are involved in a needless stand-off with Iraqi Kurds; and an agreement by the YPG to withdraw from Raqqa, an Arab city, once it is captured.

As a quid pro quo, and in return for the YPG blood spilled in Raqqa, the Syrian Kurds should have their desire for autonomy supported; have the crippling trade embargo placed on them by the government of Iraqi Kurdistan lifted; and, by means of buffer zones, have their territories protected from further attacks by Turkey and its Islamist proxies.

So far, none of these measures is in play, and comments by US officials have only strengthened a growing suspicion among Syria’s Kurds that they will be discarded by the US the moment the YPG have fulfilled their use and captured Raqqa.

“We have not promised the YPG anything,” Jonathan Cohen, a senior US state department official, told the Middle East Institute in Washington on 17 May – a day after President Erdogan’s visit to the US. “They are in this fight because they want to be in this fight. Our relationship is temporary, transactional and tactical.”

Cohen further said: “We have the YPG because they were the only force on the ground ready to act in the short term. That is where it stops.”

The sense of betrayal felt by the mourners at Derik was perfectly understandable. But Syria’s Kurds should not be so surprised the next time it happens. America, it seems, has promised them nothing more than guns and bullets. 

Anthony Loyd is a war correspondent for the Times

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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