Moving through the gears: Mary Creagh interview

Written by Anoosh Chakelian on 27 March 2014 in Interview
She made her name as an all-action shadow environment secretary, but as Labour hedges its bets on high speed rail and aviation, can shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh do the same with the transport brief? And are her plans for rail fares and cycle safety enough? Anoosh Chakelian meets her to find out

Early on in her career as an MP – the year she was elected, 2005 – Mary Creagh found herself with no trousers on with a policeman in one of parliament’s many mysterious basements.

But before tabloid journos begin rubbing their hands, this was no scandal. The trouser-less incident was, as befits the current shadow transport secretary, entirely to do with cycling.

Creagh is guffawing in recollection as she reveals this titillating transport-themed anecdote to me when we meet on a sunny Wednesday morning in her parliamentary office.

“Actually it’s hilarious, I shouldn’t tell you it, but it’s too funny. I got absolutely drenched coming in on the bike. Cycling in. In my suit. Summer showers. Arriving with my trousers sticking to my legs. Not a good look. And the policeman saw me, and he said ‘would you like to come with me?’”

She continues, chortling: “And he took me to this underground room. And he’s like, ‘We’ve got a drying room, you can hang your coat up in here’. So I said, ‘well I can’t just take my trousers off!’ and he goes, ‘no, but you can iron them’. So basically, I stood in this room, with the police officer guarding the door, ironing my trousers dry, putting the crease back into the seam.”

Even after this unlikely run-in with the law, Creagh is still cycling in to work. Indeed, the MP for Wakefield has been a keen cyclist since her teens, a passion which forms the basis of some changes she’d like Labour to make if it ever pedals up the steep hill to government.

Sitting on a comfy chair, looking out over the glistening Thames and Southbank opposite, Labour’s transport spokesperson – who was reshuffled from the role of shadow environment secretary in October last year – already has big plans to shift the country’s gear on cycling, as well as other forms of transport.

Looking smart with her distinctive short crop, a black dress and petite black brogues, Creagh is nevertheless a casual and easy-going interviewee; she is in high spirits today, gesticulating and laughing.

“I had a yellow racer, BSA, Bloody Sore Arse, which I think it stood for. British built. Someone’s going to write in and say it’s a ‘British… something’. It was an arms manufacturing company I think. Not to worry. So I had this racer. Now I don’t have a racer, I think they’re too dangerous now; they’re too low, too fast!

“I’ve been cycling since I was 16,” Creagh explains, “and for me, it was not about choice and lycra and trendiness,” she dismisses. “It was about saving the bus fares to go to school.”

She grew up in the Midlands, and proudly refers to herself as “a Coventrian”. These days she has even more northerly interests in her role as representative for the Yorkshire constituency of Wakefield. Although a few vowels slip through, Creagh’s Oxford education and spell as a councillor in Islington, London, have watered down her accent – something she admits is a frustration when fellow Labourites draw inferences about her upbringing:

“People have sort of made assumptions on the basis that I don’t have a broad regional accent, and I’ve been quite quick to put them right about my background,” she remarks, sharply. “People assume that I’m from a more comfortable background than I actually am, and that’s actually been on my own side when that’s happened.

“People have made throwaway comments. And I’m always very keen for people to understand that actually, it wasn’t all that easy when I was growing up in Coventry as the car factory shut down and unemployment went through the roof. The fact that I went to Oxford and acquired a kind of… lost my Coventry accent – although it does come back in moments of high stress – it should not be, you know, I think people make a lot of assumptions about people and they’re not necessarily useful or helpful.”

She jokes that “there are definitely not enough Midlanders on the frontbenches”, but is deadly serious when she adds: “More diversity of whatever shape and form can only improve our parliament and can only improve our decision-making.”

Creagh came in on an all-women shortlist to parliament under Tony Blair’s leadership in 2005, and five years on supported David Miliband for the Labour Party leadership. She continues to be almost evangelical about New Labour’s record, listing its achievements in government with great enthusiasm. Does she look back on that period wistfully?

“Well, we certainly changed the country for the better. Introduction of minimum wage; lifting a million pensioners, most of them women over 75, out of poverty; lifting a million children out of poverty; walking round estates in Wakefield talking to parents who had been given the chance to work, looking at the massive upgrade of the housing stock. I saw appalling housing, both as a councillor in London but also as a candidate and an MP in Wakefield. I was going round villages, between Wakefield and Huddersfield, where people still had open coal fires. All of that changed for the good. So I think there were a lot of positive things.”

But on the pivotal aspect of the Blair/Brown days, the economy, Creagh reveals how touch-and-go the situation was behind the scenes:

“I think Gordon’s role in that [the financial crisis] – history will be kinder to him than the current chatterati are. Because he and Alistair [Darling, then chancellor] took the big decisions around what needed to happen to stop a global financial meltdown… It has been very difficult in this country and across the world, the 2008 financial crisis, and we’re sort of still seeing some unwinding of that even with the Co-Op – it’s got a very long tail, this financial crisis.

“But the alternatives of what could have happened, which were not spoken about at the time to avoid panic, but which were clear – money ceases to have a value, people lose confidence, the cash machines don’t work on a Monday morning, the whole economy stops. That was a very close shave. I think we provided the intellectual thought leadership.”

If the New Labour years were so wonderful, should the party’s current leadership be welcoming help from past big beasts of that era? Alastair Campbell has hinted that he’ll be offering his services come Labour’s election campaign and figures like Peter Mandelson, Jack Straw and David Blunkett remain vocal and occasionally mischievous. Even Gordon Brown is having a little limelight renaissance.

“Look, Tony Blair’s not around anymore… I think Ed Miliband is right to forge his own path. I think he’s bold, creative and a very deep thinker. We have to show that we are different, and we are different, from those days…

“Mandelson was quoted on the radio this morning, so yes, there is definitely a place for people who served under both previous prime ministers, I think, to make a contribution. You know, when people offer me help, wherever it comes from, I’m always grateful for it. I don’t think anybody, any individual, has a monopoly on wisdom, and I think we should take ideas from wherever they come.”

But it’s not quite wherever. The Lib Dems certainly aren’t invited to help this shadow cabinet minister out. Creagh worked alongside Lib Dem councillors on Islington Council before becoming an MP, a time of controversy when she accused them of “cronyism”. I wonder whether her experience working with Lib Dems colours her opinion of a potential Lib/Lab coalition nationally?

Creagh leaps back in her chair in mock horror and thrusts her two index fingers forward in an X, warding off the devil.

I acknowledge that it was a long time ago when she worked alongside her Lib Dem colleagues.

“Oh no, it’s still fresh!” she cackles.

“Look, we’re going all-out for a Labour victory at the next general election,” she sighs. “The Liberals at the moment are on 9%, 11%. But we want a Labour majority because we think that is the best way that we can deliver the change this country needs: tackling to cost of living crisis, helping young people get a good start in life, tackling long-term youth unemployment. That is what we’re going for.”

Fellow Labour frontbencher, energy minister Bryony Worthington, has remarked that a Lib/Lab configuration would be a lot greener. Surely having had the environment brief, Creagh can see the benefits regarding green policies?

“I’m not clear what green policies the Liberals have introduced,” she replies, abruptly. “They voted to sell off the nation’s forest, and they whipped themselves through the lobbies for that. They voted for the badger cull, despite some severe misgivings from some of them, Tories and Liberals. And they’ve cut the funding for ECO (Energy Company Obligation), so tens of thousands of homes are missing out on home insulation. I see absolutely nothing green about the Liberal Democrats in government.”

In her spell as shadow environment secretary, Creagh’s reputation rose as she hammered the government hard on its green credentials. The bungled forest sell-off and the horsemeat scandal provided easy hits, but the transport brief – which Creagh inherited in a job-swap with Maria Eagle – is proving less generous. With lack of clarity on HS2 steering politicians on both sides of the House to less-than-speedy decision making, and the Howard Davies airports commission yet to report, there is much to be ambivalent about.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that of all the transport areas, Creagh appears most comfortable in the saddle. She has already revealed that getting a cycle safety audit into the mainstream of transport planning will be high on Labour’s agenda for the manifesto, and elaborates further on her wishes for cyclists. She believes not only are they important for a greener and healthier society, but also that it is every person’s right, whatever their background, to learn to ride a bike:

“There’s a lot to be done, but I want to see more children having access to a bicycle, including the ones whose parents can’t afford to buy them a bike. I want every child to have the joy of learning to ride a bike, because the freedom it gives you, the exercise benefits it gives, are kind of lifelong.”

But how would Labour secure this kind of access?

“Well it has to be schools,” Creagh replies. “Schools are the primary way that we do this, and you see little kids in nurseries riding around merrily on their trikes, but then there isn’t that moment when they all learn to ride a bike together… At my school, we did all do Cycle Proficiency – the good old days! So I’m interested in how we can bring cycling into the cities, into our schools and get kids confident on two wheels.”

And it’s not just the children: “I think what we have to do is encourage parents to have the confidence to get on their bikes with their kids, allow their kids on their bikes in front of them, encourage car drivers to make allowances for cyclists, and encourage the engineers to build cycling and walking into every bit of engineering that they do in their local areas.”

How would she do this? Creagh gives the example of her “colleagues in Wales”, who have legislated for “active travel”, making it the local authorities’ duty to think about walking and cycling. To “think about infrastructure in different ways” is “certainly something I’m interested in exploring further.”

Although there she avoids making any hard spending commitments, Creagh is clearly more certain about her plan for cycle safety than Labour’s stance on HS2.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls noticeably cooled off the idea at the end of last year, warning there would be “no blank cheque” for the project if Labour took power, while fellow shadow cabinet member Andy Burnham has hinted he may have to rebel against Labour on the subject. However, with HS2 the brainchild of former transport secretary and influential Labour peer Andrew Adonis, many of Creagh’s colleagues are wedded to the plans. Indeed, it was widely assumed that Creagh took Maria Eagle’s place in the transport role because the latter is such a firm advocate of the project.

“It’s been beset by controversy and of course the costs have gone up as time has dragged on,” Creagh acknowledges. “We want to see those costs coming down… But it’s clear, we’ve said there’s no blank cheque for the project.”

This is Labour’s line on the line, but if there’s no blank cheque, and costs become too high, then could Creagh envisage it never going ahead? She doesn’t deny that this could be an outcome:

“Look, it’s very early days. We haven’t agreed to the Bill to even begin it… When I talked with David Higgins [HS2 chairman], he said ‘look, we haven’t done any soil analysis, we don’t know what we’re tunnelling through’. So if you don’t know what you’re tunnelling through, you don’t know how many tunnelling machines you need, and how long it’s going to take. Is it going to be gravel? Is it going to be sand?

“What Higgins says is it’s very important that he has the time to look at and really analyse how we can get it, how we can drill down on costs – drill is an unintended pun – reduce the costs, get more of the benefits to more people. But it is still a very early stage engineering project, that’s for sure.”

It hardly sounds like a reassuring response for those who are pro-HS2. Is the subject causing tensions in shadow cabinet?

Astonishingly perhaps, Creagh reveals: “Ermm well if I’m honest, we haven’t discussed it in shadow cabinet since I’ve had the brief.”

What does she think of shadow cabinet members voicing their concerns in public? “Andy [Burnham] has said the headline was not what Andy said [about rebelling over HS2] and he’s had a chat with me about it. But I think he was reflecting some of the concerns from those Northern towns and cities. What we don’t want is a winners and losers situation… We have to see the value for money case, and critically the connectivity case, and I know as a Wakefield MP, there are concerns from the Northern cities which don’t have a terminus, about how it will work for them.”

Perhaps wisely, Creagh returns to the message. “Ed Balls is absolutely right to look again at the costs… You see the costs ballooning, no real account given of why that is happening, apart from the risk of delay from a fairly incompetent government across all sorts of transport projects. And you say, hang on a minute, we’re going to be facing austerity in 2015. Is this the right way to spend the money? Obviously it’s right for us to look at that.”

Creagh’s answers hardly suggest that Labour is intent on continuing with the plan if the party reaches government, and she is equally cautious on the topic of aviation capacity, simply stating that Labour will await Howard Davies’ report into airports before making a decision.

One transport pledge from Labour is to cap rail fares. I wonder who would shoulder the cost of this plan. I imagine Labour is hoping it will be the private rail companies who lose out…

“Yeah, it has to be negotiated with those companies,” Creagh nods. “Under us was the ability to flex the fares, but Andrew [Adonis] got rid of that in 2009 and actually rail fares sort of stayed flat and in some cases reduced in 2009/10. What we’ve seen under this government is a huge increase in those regulated rail fares, the commuter fares, where there’s no elasticity of demand, where people have no choice but to travel on the 6.15 or the 7.15 from Sevenoaks or Brighton or Stevenage into London for their work…

“So capping the cost of rail, getting rid of the flex, is our way of tackling those increases in rail fares. But what is now clear on the railways is that the whole West Coast franchising fiasco has got a very long tail… You could do an awful lot on rail fares if you had steady state franchising, and if we hadn’t had this disaster… People are remembering why you can’t trust the Tories with the railways.”

Is there a chance that there could be a level of renationalisation of the railways in the future?

“We’re certainly looking at the future of this system,” Creagh replies carefully, commenting on the franchising process. “I think the weaknesses in the system have been shown up post-2008, so we’ve had the East Coast Mainline, two franchises have gone down, GNER, National Express, where they handed back the keys. We’ve got a directly-operated railway working well and in the public interest and delivering those franchise payments back to government, which can then be reinvested across the service. And the government’s ideological obsession is to privatise East Coast and get rid of directly-operated railways.

“We’ve said we’d make that the last franchise to go out and we would allow it to bid for other franchises… Look, some of these franchises, this big franchise that’s happening, the Thameslink franchise which is First Capital Connect, Thameslink and Southern all sort of being linked up together in this big North-South London railway – that is 22% of the nation’s railway journeys. And that is supposed to be starting in September this year. So it’s not possible to, you can’t rip that contract up,” Creagh laments.

“But it’s clear that a concessionary model that is run, for example by Transport for London for the London Overground, has delivered massive increases in passenger numbers, they’ve quadrupled the number of people using those trains by turning essentially into a kind of Tube service, metropolitan service, so I think they’ve shown what can be done. I think there’s an appetite for change out there.”

Before I leave, I admit I don’t have the confidence to cycle in London

“Oh but you must! Come with me, come with me!” she insists, giving me recommended routes and detailed advice about how to start out.

I mention that I’d read a disproportionately high number of women die in cycling accidents in London, apparently because they’re less likely to be aggressive enough to skip red lights when necessary.

“I’m not sure that that’s the reason,” Creagh responds. “I think there’s a spatial issue. Because this has always been the case. There is an issue about left turns at junctions and going up the left hand side of a heavy goods vehicle. I would be lying if I said I’d never done it, because if you’re in London and you’re cycling on the embankment, you’re going past HGVs all the time.”

Confident on her bicycle, Mary Creagh just needs a steer on which direction her party’s transport policy will take. But she seems like the right candidate to weave the Labour Party through the oncoming traffic of infrastructure woes, transport uncertainties and tricky policy inheritances if it takes the driving seat in 2015. And if not, she can always hide in the basement.

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