Friday, 27 March 1992


Tribune, 27 March 1992

John Prescott talks to Paul Anderson about what he plans to do when he takes over at the Department of Transport

When John Prescott was given the job of shadowing the Minister of Transport, then Paul Channon, in 1988, there were plenty of people around (including Tribune’s reporter) who inter­preted it as a demotion.

His previous job, from 1987, had been as ener­gy spokesman, where he was replaced by the up-and-coming Tony Blair, and before that trans­port, between 1983 and 1984. Prescott’s move back to transport, the generally accepted story went, was punishment for standing against Roy Hattersley for Labour’s deputy leadership at the 1988 party conference: Hattersley was saved em­barrassment only because he piled up the union block votes.

If it was punishment, however, it soon back­fired. No sooner had Prescott taken over than a series of transport accidents - the Clapham Junction, Purley and Bellgrove train disasters and the Kegworth air crash - propelled him on to the nation’s television screens to denounce the Tories for reducing investment and allowing safety standards to slip. By mid-1989, the pugna­cious, plain-speaking MP for Hull East had a higher public profile than any other Labour front-bencher except Neil Kinnock and perhaps John Smith.

Since then, Prescott has been in the news con­sistently for his energetic harrying of the Tories over the dilapidated state of Britain’s transport system. He saw off the unfortunate Channon in July 1989 and consistently got the better of his successor, the ineffectual and smug Cecil Parkin­son. After Parkinson resigned when John Major became Prime Minister, Prescott had almost 18 months of humiliating Malcolm Rifkind.

He has not won over all his former Labour critics. Most obviously. Peter Mandelson, the for­mer Labour director of communications who is Hartlepool’s Labour candidate in this election, used his column in the Sunday People recently to have a dig at Prescott for claiming that the To­ries were spreading nasty rumours about his pri­vate life around the Commons press gallery. But most of his colleagues now at least grudgingly share the Sun’s admiration for his bluntness, extraordinary energy and capacity for hard work. In short, Prescott has been rehabilitated.
Now he is busy on the campaign trail, where his knockabout speaking style, though a little short on soundbites, does wonders for party morale. At the London Labour Party rally which launched the campaign proper in the capital a fortnight ago, he was the only speaker who man­aged to provoke the rather polite audience into gales of laughter, and he has since pulled off the same trick at meetings throughout the country.

He is looking forward to taking over the De­partment of Transport from Rifkind on April 10. Indeed, he brims over with enthusiasm at the prospect of getting to grips with the DoT - and changing it beyond recognition.

“There are seven times as many civil servants on the road programme as there are anywhere else,” he says. “It’s ridiculous. The DoT ought to be the strategic thinker. The first step is to de­volve the roads programme to the regions. The second is to integrate the Department so that road and rail and the rest think together what they’re trying to achieve. The third is to produce every year a rolling programme of infrastructure planning.”

The view among civil servants is apparently that a Labour DoT would be an exciting place to be because of the radicalism of Prescott’s pro­posed shake-up, but how far it would cease to be the “Department for the Private Motor Car”, as environmentalists have dubbed it under the To­ries, is a moot point.

Most of Labour’s transport policy reflects the fact that Prescott’s advice comes mainly from transport experts who more or less accept the en­vironmentalist arguments that the private motor car is wasteful of energy and a major source of the carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming, and that there is no way of building a road system that can solve the problem of con­gestion. But Labour is also under pressure from car industry trade unions which desperately want, a Labour government to stimulate the cur­rently deeply depressed market for new cars.

One crucial indicator of who has the upper hand will be what happens to road-building if Labour wins. New roads have been at the centre of the Tories’ transport policy for the past 13 years, and just over a fortnight ago they an­nounced a £750 million boost to the already mas­sive road-building programme. Labour’s mani­festo promises that “within six months we will review the roads programme” and Prescott em­phasises that the review will lead to cuts, even though Labour “wouldn’t do anything about the contracts that had been signed”.

“The government has said that the number of cars could increase by 140 per cent in the next 25 years,” he says. “The road programme it has at the moment increases road capacity by less than 10 per cent. So you simply can’t build your way out of the problem.

“That means you must review the road prob­lem to achieve a better order of priorities - main­tenance, by-passes if you like - plus give a greater priority to the development of public transport. The party’s priority is to encourage travellers to shift from the private motor car to public transport.”

Not that Labour wants to plough tax­payers’ money into subsidising trains and buses or bringing privatised trans­port services back to state or municipal ownership: there simply isn’t the money to do it. Instead, a Labour government would adopt low-cost strategies for encouraging public transport investment to coax travellers away from their cars.

In essence, Labour’s plans for improving the railway system consist of keeping British Rail in the public sector, streamlining its planning, and relaxing the Treasury rules governing railway investment to allow BR to lease-buy equipment instead of buying it outright at once, thus spreading costs over several years.

That is the way continental European railways finance investment, and Prescott is withering about the Tories’ insistence that leasing is not a good idea. “Their dilemma on leasing is that they’ve just leased the European sleeper trains and the freight trains because our European partners said that we’re not into this silly non­sense of paying in one year. I’ve embarrassed them, right?” he says.

The emergency recovery programme in the Labour manifesto promises to allow BR “to pro­ceed with a leasing scheme of 188 new Networker trains on the North Kent line”, which it de­scribes as “the first step in securing private in­vestment to help modernise Britain’s railways”.
Prescott says that the next steps after that will almost choose themselves.

“Take the inter-city line on the west coast from Euston. That’ll cost about £800 million to up­grade. We’ve already been in consultation with finance houses and the manufacturers to look at a new leasing deal so that we can pay for it over 10 to 15 years. That means that we wouldn’t have to find so much money immediately but we’d get the benefit of the investment.

“It’s the same with the Channel Tunnel rail link, which will cost £4,000 million. We need a high-speed Channel Tunnel rail link by the end of this decade. The Tories would take until the end of the next decade. So we’re talking about a joint public-private operation that may be funded by a bond system like that used by French rail­ways, which Neil Kinnock has talked about.”

In the longer term, Labour is keen to see more electrification, a nation-wide high­-speed train network, an outer circle railway for London, major expansions in regional rail services and a whole lot more besides - but only “as resources allow”, and the detail on most of these proposals has yet to be worked out.
With buses, the key to Labour’s plans is to end the instability caused by deregulation and to in­troduce a series of measures to give buses priori­ty on urban streets. The 1985 Transport Act, which privatised the National Bus Company, forced local authority bus services to become or­dinary companies and to open themselves up to competition from other operators.

Prescott says that the result of deregulation has been underinvestment and chaos. “Return­ing to a regulated system gives you the stability that will allow the bus companies to raise the money themselves to finance new investment,” he says. “It doesn’t cost us anything.”

“In urban areas, the buses could do a lot more in attracting passengers if we gave them green priority routes. We give the bus priority on the road, priority at the roundabouts and reduce the journey time. By reducing the journey time we can increase the frequency of the bus and its reli­ability, and the ridership will begin to increase. We’ll not then need to pump money into revenue support for the urban areas.”

Labour would do all it could to encourage ex­periments in urban public transport. Prescott talks enthusiastically of trying out road-pricing in Cambridge, with the revenues going to public transport, of metros in Manchester and Birming­ham, of an integrated rail and guided bus scheme for the Southampton conurbation. “We’re interested in the network,” says Prescott. “We believe in maintaining the network.”

In line with this, he is opposed to Richard Branson’s attempts to muscle in on British Air­ways’ position as the only significant British air­line. “We need a large British aviation interest to combat the Americans in global competition,” he says: allowing Branson’s Virgin Airways to un­dermine the profitability of BA by running flights to America but not on BA’s unprofitable routes “raises questions of major importance.

“Branson rang me up on a earphone and said did I agree with him going from Heathrow and I said no I didn’t,” he says. Heathrow itself is al­ready too congested and then there is the prob­lem of easing congestion on the transport system that gets people to the airport. “I told Branson, there’s nothing wrong with Gatwick.

“What our transport policy is about is simple. The market solution is not an adequate one. You know, it’s only in Britain that this is an ideologi­cal party argument. Everywhere else in Europe, it doesn’t matter who’s in power, they accept all these arguments for a role for government, for planning, for use of public money. We in Britain are on our own. That’s why we’re in such a mess.”


Tribune leader, 27 March 1992
Just as in 1987, a small but vocal lobby is urging vot­ers to vote tactically at the election. Last week, the New Statesman even went so far as to suggest that Labour candidates should stand down in Tory seats where Liberal Democrats have a good chance of winning, as should Liberal Democrats in Tory seats where Labour is best placed.

Of course, this is not going to happen, not least be­cause any electoral pact at this stage would seriously damage the credibility of the participants as national parties and would cause all sorts of debilitating acrimony. Tactical voting is a different matter. There is no is doubt at all that some anti-Tory tactical voting will take place – not because the New Statesman and Democratic Left, the former Communist Party, want it, but because it always happens.

From Labour's point of view, however, it is by no means clear that it should be encouraged. Of course, it will do Labour no harm if Lib Dem supporters switch to Labour in most of its target seats, which are Tory-held and where Labour came second in 1987.

Else­where, however, the message that supporters of tactical voting are putting across is irrelevant or harmful to Labour.

There are 40 or so constituencies where Labour is at­tempting to unseat Liberal Democrats, Social Democrats or Scottish Nationalists, where Labour faces strong non-Tory challenges or where contests are three-way or four-way. In these seats, the message that supporters of tactical voting are trying to put across (that it doesn't really matter which way you vote as long as it's not Tory) will at best confuse voters and at worst do severe damage to Labour's chances.

Then there are the 30 or so Labour-held constituen­cies which are vulnerable to the Tories on small swings, where, if the idea of tactical voting catches on, Liberal Democrat supporters might back the Tory as the lesser evil.

With the election race neck-and-neck and Labour des­perate for every seat it can get, tactical voting is a minefield for the party and it is quite right to skirt around it. Labour will get the best possible result if it sticks to appealing unequivocally for a straight Labour vote.

Friday, 20 March 1992


Tribune leader, 20 March 1992

Labour has got off to a tremendous start in this election campaign. Neil Kinnock's first major speech of the campaign at the party's Scottish conference in Edinburgh last Friday made John Major's effort at the Tory local government conference the next day look wooden and unconvincing.

On Monday, John Smith's shadow budget trumped Norman Lament's "real" budget and the Tories* persis­tent jibes that Labour would increase taxes for all: only the most easily led will now believe the Tory claims. It also knocked the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto launch from the top slot in the television news. Mr Smith's effi­cient demolition of Mr Lamont on Monday night's Panorama was a joy for Labour supporters to behold.

On Wednesday, when both Labour and the Tories launched their manifestos, the Labour politicians looked buoyant while their Conservative counterparts appeared lacklustre. More important, Labour's pro­gramme appeared sensible and attractive, the Tories' absolutely threadbare. At the national level, Labour has seized the initiative, making the Tories look like unin­spired and uninspiring losers. Even such hardy profes­sional politicians as Douglas Hurd, Christopher Patten and Michael Heseltine seem to have lost their touch, while Mr Major himself, supposedly the Tories' greatest electoral asset, is clearly out of his depth. This week's Tory party political broadcast was utterly unconvincing.

But it is not just a matter of Labour doing well in what Tony Bonn once described as the constituency of Television Central. By all accounts, the party's 'head­quarters in Walworth Road is operating with an un­heard-of breezy enthusiasm. More important, Labour is also doing extraordinarily well on the ground. In seat after seat, local Labour Parties are reporting that they have taken the campaigning initiative: first on to the streets with leaflets, first to get the posters out, first to canvass.

In many places, including many of its target marginals and, remarkably, several inner-city areas where pessimists believed Labour's organisation to be moribund, Labour has been the only party with any vis­ible presence in week one. The Tories seem incapable of anything so far, apart from computerised direct-mail shots and expensive (and easily amended) advertise­ments on hoardings. Labour is more optimistic than at any time since 1974. We all think we're going to win.

But it would be wrong to take anything for granted. High morale can be useful for winning general elec­tions, but only if it inspires party members and sup­porters to go out and do the hard graft. And there is still a lot of hard graft to be done. A good start is better than a bad one - and so fear Labour is doing much bet­ter than in 1987, when its campaign was widely ad­mired - but a couple of polls showing a five-point Labour lead do not guarantee the election result.
In the wake of the shadow budget, the Tory tabloids have shaken off the uncertainty of last week, which saw even the Sun pronouncing Mr Lamont’s £2-a-week giveaway a flop, and have unleashed a ferocious assault on Labour. By the weekend, Labour's mood could all too easily be punctured if it turns out that Tuesday's Harris poll in the Daily Express, giving the Tories a three-point lead, was not a freak.

Even if the polls have swung in Labour's favour, there are plenty of obstacles to be overcome before we can be sure of Labour victory. It is probably best to keep the champagne on ice.

Friday, 13 March 1992


Tribune leader, 13 March 1992

And so, at long last, we know for certain that the election is on April 9. John Major's announcement on Wednesday means that the tedious phoney war is over. Now the battle can begin in earnest.

This election is a make or break election both for Britain and for Labour. If the Tories were to win again, the country would face up to five more years of eco­nomic mismanagement, sleaze, contempt for democra­cy, obstructionism in Europe and crumbling public ser­vices. Labour, having lost four elections in a row, would be disastrously broke and demoralised. It is essential for Labour and for the country as a whole that it wins. Labour might well be fighting this election on policies somewhat different from those that Tribune would have preferred. But that is as may be. Along with party members of all persuasions, Tribune knows that a Labour government is the only hope for getting Britain back on to its feet again economically, the only hope for a fairer and more humane society, the only hope for modernising our creaking constitution.

Luckily, Labour is well placed to win. The effects of the Tories* assault in January on Labour tax policies has worn off, and this week's budget was a damp squib. Labour is now 3 percentage points ahead in most opin­ion polls, and governing parties tend to lose support during election campaigns.

There is, however, no room for complacency. The opinion polls are desperately close, and every vote will count. The election could be won or lost during the campaign. As Larry Whitty said a couple of weeks ago, the efforts of Tribune readers could make all the differ­ence. It's time to get those fingers out.

The bribe won't work

Norman Lamont sprung a surprise in his budget on Tuesday: instead of simply reducing the basic rate of income tax by Ip or 2p, as everyone had ex­pected, he reduced the tax rate from 25p in the pound to 20p for the first £2,000 of taxable income. Most peo­ple in work will get £2.64 a week extra in their wage packets.

That made Neil Kinnock's job in replying to the bud­get address on Tuesday afternoon just a little more dif­ficult than it would have been if Mr Lamont had done what he had been predicted to do. Introducing a lower band of tax for the first £2,000 of taxable income is bet­ter targeted on the low-paid than a Ip or 2p reduction in the basic rate: it is less easy to portray as a handout to the already well-off.

It is, nevertheless, just as much an attempt at elec­toral bribery as the Ip or 2p would have been, and Mr Kinnock was right to describe it as such. And, despite the Tories' crowing, it will almost certainly prove a sin­gularly ineffective bribe. A Ip or 2p reduction in the ba­sic rate would have put significant amounts of money (more than a fiver a week, in other words) into the pockets of many skilled working class and lower middle class voters – the very people that will determine the outcome of the election in the key marginals.

For these moderately affluent voters, £2.64 is peanuts, the equiva­lent of a packet of cigarettes or a couple of pints of beer or a takeaway Chinese meal. It looks even more measly after the effects of raised excise duties are taken into account. It is emphatically not an election-winning bribe. Labour's campaign has been given some unex­pected help.

Friday, 6 March 1992


Tribune, 6 March 1992

Paul Anderson reports from the Welsh Labour conference in Swansea

For most of the newspapers, what mattered about last Fri­day's Labour rally in Swansea, on the eve of the Wales Labour Party's conference, was ei­ther devolution or the running ar­gument over tax cuts and public spending.

"Kinnock's pledge: Welsh assem­bly promised in his first term of government," proclaimed the front page of the Cardiff Western Mail on Saturday, above a report on the Labour leader's speech the previ­ous evening. The Independent and most of the other London papers found great significance in Kinnock's promise that a Labour gov­ernment would borrow not to pay for tax cuts but for investment.

Of course, these were both real stories. Kinnock had never before been quite as clear on the timing of the proposed Welsh assembly, nor had Labour politicians previ­ously spelled out quite so explicitly that their objection to the Tories' plans to borrow to pay for tax cuts was not an objection to borrowing as such.

But there was more to the Swansea rally than that, at least in the eyes of the 1,000-plus party faithful packed into the city's Guildhall to listen to the speeches and cheer. To them, the rally marked the official start of Labour's election campaign, not just for Wales but for the rest of Britain too. In many ways they were absolutely right.

That might seem just a little bold. On one hand, there has been no end of beginnings for Labour in the past couple of months: the launch of Made in Britain, the eco­nomic policy document, the rally in York, the local government confer­ence. On the other, nobody knows for certain whether another launch will be needed a month hence if John Major decides to postpone the election until May.

But Swansea was special. Labour for the first time laid out in public its package for the elec­tion campaign, and it did so with a conviction that has eluded it for much of the pre-election phoney war.

Kinnock's speech was long, at times prolix, but unexpectedly ag­gressive and populist. He was al­most frighteningly ebullient, and he hammered home his theme with great force: the Tories are re­sponsible for the worst recession in living memory - and now they are on the run.
Kinnock made a particular point of attacking Major in person (an attack echoed later by Bryan Gould, who told the rally that "be­ing a nice guy isn't enough to be a good Prime Minister"). 

Labour has clearly decided that the best way to defend itself against Major's personal popularity u to repeat in­sistently that he cannot escape the blame for the mess the country is now in, to challenge him again and again to take part in a televised debate with Kinnock.

In similar vein, the party has decided to take on the Tories directly on tax and public spending. Kinnock was unashamedly redistributionist in rhetoric. His answer to the expected tax-cutting budget was simple: the government's promise of a penny or two off the basic rate, paid for by borrowing, was a simple electoral bribe.

"They’re putting Britain in hock to keep themselves in office," he said. The key difference in the coming election was between Tory bribers and Labour builders". "We are the builders!" he exclaimed, and brought the house down.

Much of this was unremarkable - "standard campaign-trail stuff", as the man from the BBC re­marked to me - and there is no doubt that Kinnock, on home ground, was playing to the audi­ence's need for a morale boost be­fore the grisly business of canvass­ing in the wind and rain begins in earnest.

But the emphases in his speech have a wider significance. The idea that Labour should sit tight, stay uncontroversial and focus all its efforts on training and the National Health Service seems at last to have been abandoned. There is nothing wrong now with sounding egalitarian, even at times left-wing.

This turn to ideology is symbol­ised (ironically in view of his past reputation) by the elevation of Roy Hattersley to a prominent position in the campaign. After a week of high-profile pronouncements, he was in Swansea on Saturday for a starring role in the conference proper, reinforcing Kinnock's as­sault on the Tories' tax-cutting plans.

This is not to suggest that train­ing and the NHS will not be play­ing a big part in Labour's cam­paigning. Tony Blair opened the proceedings on Friday night with a vigorous attack on the govern­ment's neglect of training and Robin Cook got the heartiest re­sponse after Kinnock when he wound up the rally with a stinging denunciation of the Tories' health policies.

Some of the most enthusiastic applause came after he declared: "I do not take back one word we said during the Momouth by-election" on the Tories' plans to privatise the NHS.

But Labour has decided to adopt a strategy of assault on all fronts in an attempt to open up the four-point lead it needs to stand a good chance of being able to form a ma­jority government after the elec­tion. In Swansea last Friday, with the polls indicating that Labour had clawed back the advantage that the Tories had gained in Jan­uary with their attack on Labour's tax proposals, Kinnock and his col­leagues gave the strong impression that they really believed Labour could make it.

By the end of the evening, some of their self-confidence had rubbed off on the audience. Who knows, it might yet take the whole country by storm.