For Michael Dugher, the post of shadow transport secretary was a natural destination. The Barnsley East MP is the son, grandson and great-grandson of railwaymen. “It’s a really big brief for me, there’s always a danger that you can be typecast as a back office person,” he tells me when we meet in his Commons den. Dugher, 39, was only elected in 2010 but is well-known in Westminster from his time as Gordon Brown’s political spokesman and his role in this parliament as one of Labour’s chief attack dogs. He was “surprised and excited” to be promoted to shadow transport secretary last November by Ed Miliband, whom he first met when the pair contested each other for the Doncaster North nomination before the 2005 election.
Dugher, part of the key group of Ed Balls supporters who voted for Miliband as their second preference in the Labour leadership contest, has been charged by his leader with toughening the party’s stance on the railways. To date, Labour has pledged to allow the public sector to compete with private companies for franchises as they expire. But Dugher suggests that the bidding process itself could be abandoned. “Privatisation was a disaster for the railways,” he says. “I’m adamant about putting the whole franchising system, as it stands today, in the bin.” He adds: “The public sector will be running sections of our rail network as soon as we can do that”.
Dugher describes the party’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 … The industry want to stitch it up and we’re not having that anymore.” Berating the “boneheads at Stagecoach” for their opposition to Labour’s bus regulation policy, he tells me: “This is not like 1997, that whole deference to markets and the private sector, that’s gone”.
We turn to the election. I ask Dugher how Labour should act in the likely event of a hung parliament. “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 replies without missing a beat. But he later adds: “If anything, I think coalition government has been hugely discredited by recent years and people’s experience of”. Dugher, who campaigned for Labour in Nick Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam constituency the day after we met, has no desire to search for common ground with the Liberal Democrats. “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 them … I think we can have a good go at Clegg and I hope people in Sheffield understand what a lousy MP he is”.
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 and describes cooking as “really distracting, really relaxing”. “My grandad was Anglo-Indian, so I was brought up on Indian food, it was never just six pints of lager and a vindaloo”. 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.”