In Jeremy Corbyn’s first shadow cabinet reshuffle, Michael Dugher was named shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport, or, as a friend put it, “the shadow minister for all the things you like”. When I meet him at the British Museum, the Barnsley East MP is in suitably ebullient form, praising the new “Celts” exhibition.
The job is indeed a natural fit for Dugher, who, among other things, is renowned as Labour’s top karaoke performer. But his appointment was not universally welcomed. “There’s definitely been a tiny element of casual snobbishness,” Dugher tells me. “I won’t name who it was, but a fellow frontbencher, who is a London MP, came up to me in the lobby and said, ‘Where are you now? DCMS?’ So I said, ‘Yeh, that’s right.’ And he went, ‘Is that something that someone like you would enjoy? I can see how you’d be interested in the sport but the other things?’ And I suddenly thought, ‘Ah, right, so there it is.’ Just a tiny element, without having a chip on my shoulder or overstating it, of ‘northern bloke, culture?’. It’s irritating.”
I start by asking Dugher, who never disguised his disagreements with Corbyn during the leadership election (he managed Andy Burnham’s campaign), whether serving under the Labour leader was a hard choice. “It might have been a harder decision for him to appoint me,” he quips. “I did think about it: it was clear in the run-up that he was likely to win, so I did think about it. And I just decided, ‘It’s not in my nature to walk away, it’s not my style.’ I think you’re always better to argue your corner.” He adds: “The so-called ‘moderates’, although I hate that word . . . got 41 per cent of the vote, even with all the changes to the membership and everything, and they still got more than half of the party membership. Although I hate the label, it’s still our party too.”
As a ‘moderate’, with close ties to Labour’s “old right”, Dugher signals his discontent with the party’s left. “The starting point has got to be the voters. That kind of ‘no compromise with the electorate’ is a dumb strategy. The starting point for any political party when they’ve just lost an election is to begin with the defeat and to understand why we lost, not what we’d like to think about why we lost . . . I think it’s hard for some people in the party. I think some have an interesting view about why we lost. For instance, I’ve never been wholly convinced that people chose to vote Conservative at the last election because Labour wasn’t left-wing enough, I just don’t buy that.”
The priority, Dugher says, is to win back “trust” on the economy, welfare and immigration. Until Labour does, he warns, “we can’t win”. He continues: “If you think about it, a hundred years ago, the party had to make a big decision: was it going to be a protest movement, all the stuff that Tony Benn used to talk about, the heritage of the Chartists and the Levellers, all of that. The Labour Party made a decision a hundred years ago that it wasn’t enough just to get the banners out and organise the next demo.
“That decision of a hundred years ago: do we want to be a party of protest, do we want to be a party that lobbies parliament, that lobbies the government? Or do we want to be a party that aspires to government and that wants to get enough Labour MPs so that we can stop cuts to tax credits because we’re the government, we stop the attacks on trade unions because we’re the government? And, locally now, not a single day goes by when something doesn’t come across my desk – the Dementia Charity in Barnsley I’m patron of has just lost a big contract with the council.
“Now, that’s a disaster for them. I’ve rightly blamed the government because of the cuts to the council. But you know what, we should also have the self-awareness and courage to say: ‘That’s happening because we lost the election.’ We should absolutely get after the Tories and I’ve got a pretty good reputation, I think, for getting after the Tories. But we should also have the self-awareness and self-confidence to basically say, ‘That’s also happening because we lost the election.’ ”
Before becoming shadow culture secretary, Dugher was shadow transport secretary, masterminding the party’s policy to allow the public sector to take over rail franchises as they expire. After pushing, without success, for the issue to be a feature of Labour’s general election campaign, Dugher had his plan taken up by Burnham and, later, by Corbyn.
But while there are points of agreement between him and the left, he derides Momentum, the new grass-roots group established by the Labour leader’s supporters. “When Jeremy won he said he wanted to unite the party, he wanted a party where there was room for a little dissent and where we could have debate. But the idea that we need another faction, I think it’s the last thing that we need. If you’ve won the leadership election then lead the party, that’s exactly what Jeremy, I’m sure, is doing. But that needs to apply to some of the people around him. You’ve won, so lead the party. You don’t win the leadership of the party and then set up a faction. It strikes me from their own point of view as not a sensible thing to do.”
He adds: “To be honest, we’ve got too much on . . . The idea that we’ve got a spare ten minutes to be setting up factions within the Labour Party, rather than getting after the Tories and getting back in touch with the public: crazy.”
We meet the day after Scottish Labour has voted to oppose Trident renewal, a stance that Diane Abbott, the shadow international development secretary, has predicted the UK party will emulate. “Good luck, Diane,” Dugher deadpans when I raise the issue. “Policy isn’t made by me or by Diane. We’ve got a very proper process around the National Policy Forum, that’s how we make policy and our policy remains that we are a multilateralist party and that we’re committed to the renewal of Trident. We believe in a continuous at-sea deterrent, that was the Labour Party’s policy yesterday, it’s still the Labour Party’s policy today and it’s something worth defending.
“We have tried the alternative and (I’m responsible for the film industry in opposition) I’ve seen that particular movie and I know how it ends. I was slightly baffled by the result of the Scottish Labour decision – it’s their decision, it’s up to them. But there are an awful lot of jobs in Scotland dependent on this, aside from the issues around defence and security. I suspect that some of the workforce there will be far more baffled than me.”
When I mention the possibility of Corbyn giving MPs a free vote on Trident, to allow him and others to oppose renewal, he replies: “You can’t have a free vote on Labour Party policy, can you? Everyone should vote in a way that’s consistent with Labour Party policy. If you’d like a different policy, change the policy. But you’ve got to go through a process.”
When I ask Dugher what his priorities will be in his new brief, he cites the campaign to defend the BBC. “When you look at what the government may be considering around the licence fee, the charter, in their words ‘cutting down’ the BBC, I think that represents a huge threat to the BBC and a hugely damaging threat to Britain’s success in terms of the creative industries as well. I think we have a big fight on our hands to defend the BBC.
“I think the other issue is we’re going to have a very tough Spending Review and it’s our job to defend the need, in a civilised country, to have proper investment in arts and culture and grass-roots sport. That’s important to who we are as a country.”
But it is on the need to improve access to arts and culture for working-class children that Dugher speaks most passionately. He notes a series of grim statistics: 70 per cent of children whose parents are non-graduates spend less than three hours a week on cultural activity (while 80 per cent of the children of graduate parents spend more than four hours); the number of primary school children taking part in cultural arts activity has fallen by a third since 2010; the number of arts and culture teachers has fallen by 11 per cent; and 40 per cent of children from disadvantaged backgrounds have never played a musical instrument and had no opportunity to learn at school.
“There’s a massive, massive problem out there and it disproportionately hurts people from disadvantaged backgrounds. As someone who came from a working-class background, who represents a very working-class constituency, I think how we make sure that we’re doing everything we can to open up access and improve access to arts and culture for working-class people is a massive priority.”
When I raise the issue of media ownership, another subject in Dugher’s brief, he tells me: “Those issues haven’t gone away. I always get the impression, this relates as well to Leveson, that those in the media who don’t wish to see reform and some of their allies within the Conservative government have been playing a long game . . . They’re hoping that as the public anger fades then so, too, will people’s desire to make big changes . . . I remain absolutely committed to making big changes.”
Does he agree with those who argue that Labour’s poor relations with the press helped lead to its election defeat? “I don’t think we should be afraid of standing up for what we believe in and for arguing our case. There’s a difference between flying halfway around the world to actively court their support and basically just being in a permanent state of war with most of the media – there’s a happy middle somewhere.” He adds that the party must resist the temptation to “blame the press and blame the media” for its defeats. “When we just attack the press it’s a bit of a cop-out for us as well. It’s an excuse, isn’t it? ‘We’ll just blame the media.’ We’ve got to have more confidence in our own argument than that.”
After his stark assessment of Labour’s position, does he believe the party can win under Corbyn? “Labour can always win the election: it’s in our hands. We have to get back in touch with the public and that is a sizeable task. I don’t say that in the context of Jeremy’s leadership, I say that in the context of the defeat. We can win the election, but that journey begins with understanding the defeat, and that is a challenge for all of us.”
Dugher offers a stern rebuke to those such as Simon Danczuk who plan to challenge Corbyn’s leadership if Labour performs poorly in next May’s elections (the Rochdale MP has said he would run as a “stalking horse”). “You should always ask the question: does what you’re doing a) help the Labour Party or b) not help the Labour Party? And if it’s b) then don’t do it. We elected this guy just a few weeks ago; he got a majority, there’s lots of people coming into the Labour Party, we’ve got huge debates and issues and challenges along the way. I don’t think it’s helpful at all to be talking in those terms.”
And does he expect Corbyn to be leading the party in 2020? “It’s up to the bloody party membership. I don’t know why people are getting into all that. We’ve just had a leadership contest: he won, that’s it. It doesn’t matter what people think. If the Labour Party wants a different leader, it’s up to the Labour Party. It’s not up to us. That’s all changed now. We’ve got the leader that the party elected. It is not on the cards.”