Getting Britain's railway back on track

08 January 2017

 Andy McDonald, the Shadow Transport Secretary, on how he sees the future of the rail network in Britain


Andy McDonald's political career was almost strangled at birth. Passionate, committed, and working behind the scenes, he applied to join Labour’s local government panel – a list of candidates approved to stand for the party come election time. ‘I thought I’d get to fight a safe Tory seat, and lose, and was happy to do that.’ Except he was rejected. Because,it was said, he had known links with the Militant tendency.


‘The previous decade, I had represented somebody alleged to be a member of Militant and, as I explained to the appeal tribunal, as a lawyer, I represent many people accused of many things, including murder, but that didn’t mean I’d done any of those things myself.’ John Burton, Tony Blair’s agent, said there was no case to answer. ‘SoI was admitted to the panel and ended up fighting a safe seat. Being rejected by the party kick-started my political career…’

Andy, 58, has a dry sense of humour.He’s good company, as well as dedicated, and, as someone who became a Member of Parliament relatively late in life, a man without that sense of entitlement which infects some on both sides of the House. But why get involved in politics?

‘The trigger for me was 1979 – that’s when I joined the party – in response to Margaret Thatcher’s speech on the steps of Downing Street when she quoted St Francis of Assisi – “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony” – it struck a chord with me because I knew it wasn’t true.




‘I benefited greatly from the Labour governments of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan, growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, in a country created after the Second World War by the Labour governments of Clement Attlee. I went to school for free, to university for free, and was treated in hospital for free.’

Andy is a home town hero on Teesside.He was born and brought up in Middlesbrough in, for want of a better expression, an ordinary working-class home. His dad, a Scot, worked in shipyards and factories, latterly at ICI, his mum was a primary school teacher. The values instilled in him by his parents, and the teachers at his

Roman Catholic school, of hard work,and caring for others, chimed with his nascent socialism.

‘It wasn’t much of a leap to the Labour Party! Jeremy says some wonderful things, like treat your neighbour like yourself, and that kind of compassionate and caring society is one I want to work for. I had a pretty orthodox Catholic upbringing, and try to live up to those standards. I’m a practicing Roman Catholic; and I know I desperately need the practice!’

Initially, though, he found the Labour Party ‘an uncomfortable place to be, more conflict than consensus, and that shocked and disappointed me. The values and principles of our wonderful movement were observed more in the breach than in the observance.’ So why didn’t he leave? ‘Because the Labour Party is our best hope, our best bet, and even if we don’t get there that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it.

Socialism is like Catholicism. You get up every day and you fail every day. But that doesn’t mean you abandon your values and your principles.’



Andy loves football and Middlesbrough, back in the Premier League, are his home town club although his dad, from Clydeside, took him as a boy to Celtic, too. He remembers Steve Gibson, the Boro chairman, from sixth form at school, and understands what a team can mean to a town.

‘Middlesbrough, the team, is synonymous with the town and its people, a focal point to bind people together.We’ve had some terrific highs and lows, and injustices, like the three points deducted in ’96-’97 which led to relegation, and people like Ali Brownlee, Mr Middlesbrough,who died last February, the best friend people had never met. It might be intangible,but there is a bond, and we saw it when the steelworks closed, with that demonstration at Old Trafford, and the crowd singing a version of Lord of the Dance in language of primary colours to David Cameron.

The Speaker in the House of Commons understood exactly what that terribly cruel government was doing to my community, what it could have done, and chose not to.

‘This government doesn’t get the concept of an industrial strategy, that’s why it doesn’t have one. It only pretends to understand the issues. Everything is about extracting value, that’s their mantra,that’s their obsession, next quarter’s accounting report. There’s no long-term strategic thinking.’



Andy loves music, too. He passed Grade 7 piano and, as a precocious 17-year-old, formed a sixth form band called Amaraz – heavily influenced by Carlos Santana and Steely Dan, with difficult time signatures and a brass section – and then, at uni, a spoof punk rock band,Nasty Media with Paul Vallely, who,ironically, went on to write for the Church Times, the Sunday Times and The Tablet. ‘Paul came up with a version of D’YeKen JohnPeel,the Radio 1 DJ, not the 19th century huntsman, which Peely played incessantly,and which was ridiculously successful, so we ended up out on tour with John Cooper Clarke.

‘I still love music – people like Al Green and Marvin Gaye – but haven’t caught up with technology. I have my vinyland CDs but have run out of kit to play them on. But I do Spotify and am a bit of a crooner, on the quiet, with the PLP.’

With a degree in law and a passion for music he had two choices of career – teaching, specialising in music, was attractive – but went down the legal path because he wanted to stand up for the weak and the vulnerable, to right injustices, and ‘believed in the power of the law to redress the balance of power in Britain’. As a high street practitioner he did conveyancing and wills and criminal law – ‘everything, right across the spectrum’ – before specialising in injuries with Thompsons, the trade union solicitors who act for ASLEF.



He got his present job ‘by dint of circumstances; the limit of my ambition was to be a half decent Member of Parliament’ but has embraced it wholeheartedly, quickly mastering a complex brief. ‘It doesn’t hold the fears it once did. When you’re at the dispatch box you’ve got a platform for your notes, it’s like being the lead singer in a band, you’ve got the mic, it’s easier than being a backbencher.

‘Public ownership of the railway – a flagship policy for Labour – resonates with people who know it’s the right thing. How stupid is it to allow tens of millions of pounds to leak from our rail network in the name of the free market? The reality is there isn’t a railway in the world which doesn’t run with significant public subsidy. Why on earth, on that basis, should we not do it? It makes sense, instead of this complicated and costly system we have at the moment which, as we can see, doesn’t work. Revenue on the railway comes from two sources – the fare payer and the taxpayer – and it’s not Richard Branson. This country needs to lose its Virginity.

‘There’s a great public appetite for public ownership of something, like rail, which belongs to the people. We want worker involvement in the management and day to day running, and remember the success of East Coast in the public sector from 2009 to 2014. We will bring them back into the public sector as franchises come to their end, or a break clause,or companies volunteer to give them up, so it won’t be an expensive exercise.’

That’s for the future but, in the meantime, there are serious problems at Southern and in the freight sector.



‘These are desperately worrying times for the freight industry and this government doesn’t have its eye on the ball.It will let the market decide and that won’t work. DBC is not just about the workforce,and the men and women the company is trying to dump, any more than it’s just about shipping goods and aggregates.

It’s about the infrastructure and the maintenance of the railway itself, which the government just doesn’t get, and if it doesn’t then we’re in deep, deep trouble.

‘DOO is political motivation writlarge. I’m not criticising conviction politics, per se, except these are exactly the wrong ones, trying to look at workforce costs as the first line of attack to increase profits, with no thought of safety, and security, for passengers. There are serious disability issues, with people being trapped in trains and on stations. The DfT is making a complete mess of this but, as we know,Chris Grayling is motivated not by what is in the best interest of passengers,but in keeping suburban services out of the clutches of a Labour Mayor of London.’

Despite talk of an early election, perhaps in spring this year, Andy thinks, ‘She’ll bottle it, do a Gordon Brown,and go on to 2020.’ And that, he thinks, is good for Labour. ‘Don’t be under any misapprehension, the Tory Party is riven. I know people talk about open warfare in the Labour Party but that’s settling down.

‘Labour can win in 2020. A significant upside to the EU referendum, an outcome I didn’t want, and campaigned vigorously against, is an opportunity for Labour to have direct conversations with people in our constituencies, to address their concerns very directly.’

He thinks about construction workers,precluded from applying for jobs in their own territories, with companies bringing over workers en masse from Eastern Europe, ‘who are wholly exploited,in receipt of wages at or around the minimum wage; it’s a lose-lose situation for both sets of workers, but a win-win for the corporates, and creates animosity and tension in our communities. Labour has the opportunity to address this head on, and say we cannot have these jobs exclusively advertised, everybody must be able to apply for them, and everybody should be paid the proper rate for the job.



‘That’s one small example, but we have to be bold and clear there is another side to the migration issue. If every European Union citizen were to leave we would be in deep, deep trouble.We have to value and respect the people who are here. We need to have a clear conversation with the electorate.

‘I don’t underestimate UKIP, and I don’t underestimate why they appeal to people, but I have great faith in true British values, which I think will prevail, and I saw that in my own constituency where UKIP came a distant second.

There was a 63% vote to leave the EU,but the first test back Labour got 76% in a ward for the local authority. That spoke volumes about what can be achieved. The Labour Party – which is here for the long term – will stand with people and stand up for people.’



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