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14 August 2014

Mary Creagh interview: “We’ve got the biggest shake-up of the railways since privatisation“

The shadow transport secretary on Labour's rail plans, Alan Johnson's possible comeback and why she doesn't regret her comments on Thomas The Tank Engine. 

By George Eaton

During a recent visit to ScotRail in Glasgow, Mary Creagh tried out the company’s new train simulator. “I did an excellent emergency stop,” she tells me. The shadow transport secretary’s handling of Labour’s rail policy has been similarly dextrous. Despite predictions of a vintage bust-up with the trade unions, consensus was achieved at the party’s recent National Policy Forum without the need for a vote.

“I’m very pleased; we’ve got the biggest shake-up of the railways since privatisation,” Creagh tells me when I meet her in her parliamentary office. Labour is now committed to allowing the public sector to bid for rail franchises as they expire, rather than handing the private sector a monopoly.

“It’s the end of an era,” she says. “Governments of all colours, post-privatisation, continued and persevered with the franchising system. I think 20 years of perseverance demonstrated the problems there are with what the Conservatives did with the railways.”

It was the emergency renationalisation of the East Coast Mainline in 2009 (after National Express defaulted on its contract) that gave the party the “intellectual and operational self-confidence to think ‘actually, why is that state railway companies from Germany, France, the Netherlands and Hong Kong, are able to run our trains and yet we don’t have our own state operator?’”

But while the party has reversed the bias in favour of the private sector, Creagh maintains that this has not translated into a new bias for the public sector. When I askher  why Labour didn’t pledge to automatically take franchises back into state ownership (as the rail unions originally demanded), she bluntly replies: “Because it could cost the taxpayer more, not necessarily, but it could.” Was it also because, as some suggest, Labour feared being portrayed as “anti-business”?

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“No, that’s not it,” Creagh says. “If you want to get the best value, you go out and see who can deliver the service. It’s partly about price, but it’s also about quality and customer satisfaction.” But despite Labour’s refusal to commit to renationalisation, there is still concern among industry at its new stance. CBI head John Cridland recently argued that “the private market in rail has worked for consumers” and warned that “the in-house bidder has to have no advantage”.

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Creagh tells me that that the public sector comparator planned by the party would be set up as “an arms-length body”. “You cannot have the department awarding contracts and then the department awarding a contract to itself. That is not the model. We’re at an early stage, we want to work through what it could look like.”

The Wakefield MP also promises change in the area of fares as part of Labour’s bid to reduce the “cost-of-living”. If elected, the party would cap ticket increases at RPI plus 1 per cent and abolish “the flex” that has allowed train companies to raise prices by as much as 9 per cent on some routes. “Our arguments over the last four years have made the government reduce ‘the flex’ and I think it’s now plus 2 per cent, so they’ve slightly shaved it, but we could still see increases of 5-6 per cent,” she notes.

“What that’s done is taken people, particularly in the south east – commuters in from Cambridge, Brighton, Reading – it’s taken certain cities into the £5,000 a year bracket. Before, £3,000 was the psychological point, now a lot of them are paying £5,000 and it is really, really challenging.”

But it was Creagh’s comments on another subject, Thomas The Tank Engine, that won her the most headlines. The shadow transport secretary was derided by the media last year after she suggested that the lack of female characters in the television series was partly to blame for the low number of women train drivers (who account for just 4 per cent of the total). 

Does she regret her comments? “No, I don’t!,” Creagh exclaims. “I was right. We have a workforce that’s 96 per cent male and I suppose I could have talked about getting more women into the rail industry, but yeh … Thomas. It was completely distorted and it became a bit of fun over Christmas.

“Look, this is the problem in politics. If you use colour or metaphor to illustrate an example you get misquoted, misconstrued, painted as a raging feminist, manhater, and it was all just an epic storm in a tea cup.

“All I’d done was read the ASLEF document that talked about barriers to women on the railway and I thought, gosh, you know, some of those barriers might be cultural and that’s where we ended up. To be honest, I’d totally forgotten about it,  it’s obviously been buried somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind.”

After last year’s “summer of silence”, Creagh, like most of her shadow cabinet colleagues, is more optimistic about Labour’s position. “These are very exciting times,” she says. “We had a very positive National Policy Forum, exhausting but positive. I have a fantastic Transport team.

“We’ve got a good set of policies now. Ed’s ‘Contract with Britain’ synthesises it all down into what a Labour government would do. The challenge is getting that out, making sure that people know and understand what we stand for.”

Ahead of the general election, Miliband has faced calls from some, including Tom Watson, Len McCluskey and John Prescott, to bring “big beasts” back into the shadow cabinet, with Alan Johnson the most commonly cited name. Creagh tells me that she would “love” the former home secretary to rejoin the frontbench, becoming the first shadow cabinet minister to support his return. “Would I want to see Alan come back? Yeh, definitely,” she says. “I think Alan’s got a huge contribution still to make to politics.”

But, she adds, “I also want him to keep writing his books, because they’re fantastic too. I read This Boy. I thought it was wonderful, I cried when I read when it, it was just so incredibly moving. You understand where Alan comes from in a completely different way, but it was also a beautiful tribute to the west London working class life that he had.”

She continues: “He showed a different world and a different approach, and a different model of fatherhood. But also the generosity of the people around his family, giving them a box of groceries because they never quite had enough food.

“I felt like some of that was certainly what I saw and see going around, particularly the food and the hunger side of things: Fair Share giving out three million meals across the country, kids turning up to school hungry, malnutrition on the increase and people making very difficult choices about where they spend their money and how they feed their families. I feel like some parts of what he was talking about are creeping back into certain parts of our country.”

For Creagh, the consolation is that in just nine months’ time she may be able to make a difference.