This article is from the July issue of Total Politics
How would you characterise the coalition's approach to transport so far?
The government doesn’t get the importance of transport to people’s day-to-day lives. That’s why they thought it was an easy choice to hike rail fares by up to 13 per cent and slash funding for buses, meaning one in five supported services has now been lost.
They don’t understand that when you cut a bus route you also cut an opportunity, whether for a young person to go to college or someone out of work to take up a job. It’s short sighted, because it will lead to higher unemployment and make it harder to get down the deficit.
I give the government credit for not abandoning Labour’s plans for high-speed rail, although it’s worrying how little energy it is putting into driving it forward – two years after the election, we still don’t have a route for the line north of Birmingham.
Has our approach to transport become too centralised? If so, was Labour's approach between 1997-2010 partly to blame for that?
Devolution to Scotland, Wales and London were great achievements, but the rest of England has lagged behind. The massive improvements in the capital, such as smart, integrated ticketing with Oyster, the revitalisation of the bus network and London Overground, shows what’s possible.
The next big challenge is how we give the cities and regions of England greater powers over transport. The government has started to talk the talk on devolution but its plans are to pass powers and spending to unelected Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), which, in the case of rail, risks being a way of devolving responsibility to make cuts.
Putting aside opposition to the coalition for the second, what's your ideal vision for Britain's transport system?
My vision is for Britain to have an integrated, affordable and reliable transport network that is the envy of the world.
We need a national road and rail network that joins up our airports and ports in a way that attracts inward investment, supports business and helps create jobs. And a local integrated network of trains, buses and cycle-ways under local democratic control, not run from Whitehall, that enables people to access employment and education opportunities.
We made great progress towards that in government, but there’s a lot more to do.
Labour's policy review is ongoing and the National Policy Forum is coming up. Do you think it's time Labour had a more detailed policy offering?
It would have been arrogant to have said to the public, after losing an election, that we still thought we had all the answers without engaging in a conversation about what we got right and wrong and hear people’s priorities for the future.
What we’ve heard is that, while we invested a lot in transport infrastructure, we didn’t do enough to ensure that public transport was affordable. People tell me we were too timid in the way we took on the private train and bus companies and addressed the disastrous consequences of rail privatisation and bus deregulation outside London.
I have started to set out some very clear policy proposals, including devolving rail services, allowing transport authorities to set bus fares and routes, and establish a concessionary fares scheme for 16 to 19-year-olds in education or training.
Would you characterise yourself as a left-leaning Labour politician? Are such distinctions still meaningful?
There is a core of meaning to the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ which enables them to be used as quick shorthand. I would characterise myself as left-leaning in the sense that I believe Labour has a historical mission to improve the lives of working people while enabling everyone to fulfil their potential, whatever their family circumstances.
This means that commitment to changing society and to increasing equality and opportunity should be at the core of what we are seeking to do. It can't be done easily and always encounters resistance, so requires a willingness to challenge vested interests and the status quo. Those on the right of politics seem to be much more willing to accept things as they are.
I am not in politics to accept things as they are.
Over your time in Parliament, you've been a backbencher, a minister and now a shadow minister. What have been your best and worst moments as an MP, and what are your ambitions for the future?
As a backbencher, it was getting the Labour government to take up and pass my Fur Farming Prohibition Bill, which stopped the cruelty of fur farming in the UK and, I’m told, has led to a pretty effective European-wide ban.
It shows that it is possible for a nation to lead by example. And, as chairwoman of the all-party parliamentary group on the MV Derbyshire, I was pleased to be able to persuade the government to pay for a wreck survey that proved that the ship's loss was caused by poor vessel design, not the alleged poor seamanship of the victims, many of whom were from Liverpool.
I inherited the campaign from my predecessor, Eddie Loyden, who had been a merchant seafarer himself. It led to better worldwide safety for bulk carriers.
As a minister, I was proud to implement the Labour government's commitment to equality for disabled people through the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, which ensured that the disabled have equal civil rights.
It was quite shocking how few rights they had in law prior to that legislation, and I see it as a great historical injustice righted. The ongoing battle for vindication for the Hillsborough families, many of whom are my constituents, is still a major priority, and I am proud to have been one of the ministers (with Andy Burnham) who established the Hillsborough Independent Panel.
I am also pleased the current government has stuck with the process, and have high hopes that the work, when completed, will finally tell the whole story, as fully as it can now be known, for the relief of the families’ ongoing agony.
My worst – and most embarrassing – moment was when I heckled Ann Widdecombe about a dodgy government contract, which, it turned out, Labour had signed within days of coming to office (making it effectively a Tory-negotiated contract). I was appropriately skewered by her response. Don't heckle without full knowledge, is the lesson.
My ambition is to be a cabinet minister in the next Ed Miliband-led Labour government, delivering a better and fairer future for all those who still need a Labour government to give them a fair chance in life.
We are all focused on ensuring Ed is the next prime minister, and there will be no vacancy for Labour leader for a long time to come. But it’s likely that the next Labour leader will be a woman. Ed has ensured that half the shadow cabinet are women. We have many women in the Parliamentary Labour Party now who are talented and experienced as ministers and as politicians, so, why not?
Fuel prices are a big concern for millions of motorists – what could be done to help them?
This is another example of the government’s blind spot when it comes to the cost-of-living crisis facing households.
The best way to help motorists is for the government to implement Labour’s five-point plan for jobs and growth, which includes a temporary cut in VAT. That would see the price at the pump fall by 3p a litre and would give immediate help to motorists, as well as helping jump-start the economy.
Motorists look set to come under even greater pressure thanks to government plans to let private companies charge tolls, even on existing roads.
The 'one per cent over inflation' undertaking on rail fares has been a key pledge from Ed Miliband so far this year. Are you confident that it's deliverable?
Yes, we could have delivered that because we would not have cut the rail budget so far, or so fast. What’s scandalous is that the government has also given back to the train companies the right to add up to another five per cent on many tickets.
We've said we would force companies to apply the fare cap to every route. That will cost the rail companies, which are making sizable profits from the system. That's why they're shouting so loudly about it. Even the National Audit Office has said that the government has failed to demonstrate that increasing rail fares benefits the taxpayer and not just the train companies.
You've said before that high-speed rail is not “untouchable”. What did you mean by that? Do you think HS2 will go ahead?
That was in the context of our policy review. I was very clear that you can’t have no-go areas in a policy review. I looked at it very carefully and very critically, and have restated our commitment to HS2 as a result of that, not least because of having seen the growing capacity constraints on our rail lines without it.
I reviewed the alternatives, but they aren’t convincing or credible. They're certainly not without the kind of economically disastrous disruption we faced during the last upgrade of the West Coast Main Line, which, as a Liverpool MP, I remember only too well.
Last year, Labour was accused of a U-turn over support for the third runway at Heathrow. What does the future for aviation in the south-east look like without one?
It’s an acceptance of reality that the government has cancelled the third runway. The case for environmental and noise impact was never won with the local community.
I have never believed that the government under David Cameron will be adding this to their list of U-turns. We could either have gone into the next election still arguing over this, or we could go for the far bigger prize for the industry and economy of seeking a cross-party solution to aviation capacity for the long term. That’s what I’ve offered the government.
My only condition is that we want to discuss serious, practical options – and that rules out the idea of a new Thames Estuary airport.
You've been clear that you support some of the coalition's cuts, despite having differences in policy priority. Why do you think it's important to be clear about where savings would come from? Would you like to see a similar approach across portfolios other than transport?
Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have always been clear that our position is that we oppose the government cutting too far and too fast, not that we oppose it cutting at all.
We've always believed we need to reduce the deficit, but we argue we also need a plan for jobs and growth. The government’s plan is failing, has put us back into recession, and it is borrowing £150bn more as a result.
That’s why I’ve not opposed the £6bn of the government’s cuts that will help cut the deficit, but have opposed decisions – the slashing of investment in infrastructure, higher rail fares and cuts to bus services, for example – which will cost jobs or add to the cost of living.
Shadow cabinet colleagues are making those choices across all departments.