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Michael Dugher: A better railway under Labour

2 March 2015

Labour’s shadow secretary of state for transport tells Ben Soffa of his plans for the biggest change to the structure railway since privatisation – and what a Labour government would mean for TSSA members.

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We’ve seen our fair share of transport ministers and their opposition shadow ministers in recent years. Some, like Andrew Adonis, have clearly held a real interest in the railways, whilst for others, it’s been ‘just another job’, pending the next Cabinet reshuffle.

What makes Labour’s Michael Dugher unique, at least in recent times, is that his knowledge of the railway industry – and indeed of TSSA – doesn’t just come from reading a few briefings, but has been absorbed over decades as part of a true railway family.

“I grew up in a pit village in South Yorkshire, about ten miles away from where I now represent in Parliament. Round there your dad was either a miner or a railwayman out of Doncaster. Both my dad’s grandfathers were on the railways: one was the chief clerk at Doncaster while the other worked in the wagon shops where he was branch secretary of what was the largest NUR branch in the country. Other than his National Service, my own grandfather worked his whole career on the railways. He was chairman of TSSA’s Doncaster Professional and Technical Staffs’ branch. My dad was also a big TSSA man and a rep for a while – he started as a clerk and then transferred to the civil engineering side, ending up with Balfour Beatty after privatisation.”

But it’s not just family history that will keep Michael grounded – he’ll also be sure to hear the views of rail workers when he’s with family: “Both my brother and my brothers-in-law work in rail engineering in Doncaster. I was practically the only one in the family who wasn’t part of the railway in one way or another – until Ed Miliband asked me to be his shadow transport secretary last November.”

It was a big sign of confidence in Michael, handing him the task of shadowing a major spending department for the first time. MP for Barnsley East since 2010, the former full-time union official and ministerial adviser has been in the Shadow Cabinet since 2011, first in a cross-departmental coordinating role then as Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office. He relishes the challenge: “I was never a romantic about the railways, but I’ve a huge affection for them. I’m determined that we drive through some big changes as I’m convinced we can do better than this. I also think the people who work in the industry deserve better than this.”

‘Privatisation was a disaster’

So what difference would a Labour government make to the railways? “We need some big changes. The government’s view is that all you need is investment – now I’m totally committed to that long- term investment, but I also think you need fundamental structural change because I don’t believe how the railways are organised at the moment is fit
for purpose.

“Privatisation was a disaster. It’s unraveled and led to huge problems, which have been dealt with in a piecemeal way – like how Railtrack became Network Rail. There aren’t many benefits to being in opposition, but it’s allowed us to step back and take a hard look at  things. It’s clear we need big reforms.

“I want to see a public sector operator able to take on and challenge the private train operating companies. The government wouldn’t even allow Directly Operated Railways, who’d done an excellent job on East Coast, to bid for the contract. Why? Because they were British and owned by the state. They’re happy for foreign nationalised bodies to come and bid. That shows the nonsense of the government’s position.

“The truth is that the franchising model as it stands today has got to go. We’ll have a speedy review in the first hundred days after the election to review franchising and get something that is fit for purpose. I want TSSA to play a part in that review as I think you’ve got a lot to offer.”

Rapid action needed

With the exception of Thamselink and East Coast, almost all major franchises in England and Wales expire over the next few years. Whoever is transport secretary come May will get to shape the industry for decades to come. First in the current timetable are new franchises for Northern and TransPennine, due to be awarded in October this year. Would those be a good place for a public operator to start?

“Well that’s going to be high up in the in-tray of the new Secretary of State – that’s for sure! We’ve been clear the franchising review will happen as soon as we’re elected. I’m keenly aware of the issues surrounding Northern, but I want to do something that delivers real improvements there. I’ve got nothing against Pacers – but that’s as long as I see them in the National Railway Museum in York, not rocking up to Barnsley Interchange.’

Passenger and worker voice

Michael Dugher also wants to democratise the way a few bosses of the private firms currently dominate the direction of the whole industry. “If you look at how the railways are run, you have the Rail Delivery Group – basically an industry stitch-up of Network Rail and the private companies. It’s our money and our railways and the only people who have no voice in the running of the railways are the passengers. We’ve said you need a new strategic body to run the railways and that’s got to include a strong passenger voice.”

And a worker voice as well? “I’m open to that. I think there needs to be much more employee and union engagement. Who better to listen to than the people working at the sharp end – people with day-to-day direct experience of what works and what doesn’t. We shouldn’t be coy about using the huge untapped potential for expertise amongst the workforce and unions.”

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Rail essential for jobs and growth

There’s going to be huge competition within government over where limited funds get spent, so will rail still get the investment it needs to cope with strongly growing demand?

“The railways are going to be a fundamental part of the next Labour government’s commitment to infrastructure. It’s essential in terms of driving jobs and growth in every corner of the country. Money will be tight, but there’s still a lot of money for rail and I think it could be spent more wisely. Just look at the money that was wasted on the West Coast fiasco, and on the other hand, at the sums that were returned to the exchequer when the public sector was running the East Coast. I think we can get better value for money, as well as a better railway with the changes we want to see.”

A big choice in May

With just a couple of months until the election, Dugher outlines how the outcome will send our rights at work in one of two very different directions: “We’ve got big plans, in terms of getting rid of exploitative zero-hours contracts, doing something about low pay, championing the skills agenda as well as vocational learning.

“What you’ve seen under this government has been a consistent denigration of the trade unions. It’s not just that the language ministers’ use is sabre rattling, it’s the threat to create turnout thresholds for industrial action ballots. I’d like to see how many ministers get 40 per cent of their total potential electorate voting for them. It’s total hypocrisy from the Conservatives.”

So what changes will a vote for a Labour government bring to TSSA members? “We’ll start with tackling the cost-of- living crisis that’s engulfing most families. This is the first time since the 1920s where people are worse off at the end of a parliament than the beginning. On average, families are £1,600 a year worse off under David Cameron, whilst at the same time millionaires and hedge funds have had a tax cut.

“There’s a fundamental unfairness in society – we need an economy that delivers for working people again, whether that’s freezing energy bills, raising the minimum wage, expanding real apprenticeships or the 10p starting rate of tax that will cut taxes for
24 million working people.

“TSSA members, like most people, care passionately about the National Health Service and they know the clear and present danger that the Conservatives and Lib Dems pose to our NHS. That’s why our plan to save the health service through funding from a levy on tobacco firms and the mansion tax is something that widely resonates.”

There’s huge promise in what Michael says, but he’s also fully aware that these are pledges TSSA will look to hold him to: “Having looked at the union over a number of years, I think TSSA under Manuel’s leadership has become a great campaigning union and long may that continue! We won’t always agree, but there’s a lot of credit due to TSSA in the way that you’ve become a real campaigning force.

“If you’re committed to the railways, in my role you can do a lot worse than asking people who work in the industry what they think. That’s not a bad thing for any new transport secretary to do and that’s exactly what I’ll do."

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