Interview: Andrew Adonis

Lord Adonis, Progress AGM, London, England

London Euston and Virgin Trains make an annoying double act. Not only does it take longer than you think to get to your departure platform, but once you’re there, and assuming you could only afford a standard class ticket, you have to walk past at least four gleaming and unspoilt first class carriages before you reach a seat you have the right to sit in.

The reason rail travel is so expensive, despite the government’s generosity to the train operating companies, is because standard class ticket holders subsidise empty first class seats. If Virgin replaced just one of their first class carriages with standard class accommodation they could sell another 70-odd cheap tickets instead of nothing. If I have my sums right, that means more money for the train companies for negligible extra cost and cheaper travel for UK taxpayers.

I put this theory to Lord Andrew Adonis, the former Secretary of State for Transport, in his Parliamentary office. It sounds like he’s heard it before. “I agree,” he says, “and I think the government should do something about it, myself.” With my policy proposal accepted, my work here is done. Hang on though, why didn’t you do anything about it while you were in charge of the country’s transport network?

Adonis reminds me that he managed to achieve a fair amount in his 20-month tenure at the DfT in the final years of the Labour government, such as nationalising the East Coast Mainline. “Every day I was Transport Secretary I would come in in the morning with five or six specific things that I wanted done. There’s always more to be done,” he concedes.

The 2010 Election put Adonis’s transport policy checklist on hiatus. After leading Labour’s ultimately fruitless attempt to forge a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, he left the front bench and took up the post of director at the non-partisan Institute for Government. As of autumn last year he is back in the fold as Labour’s spokesman on infrastructure in the Lords, shadowing former Locog chief Lord Deighton.

His flagship cause at the IfG was the expansion of the London Mayor model to other cities. The London Mayoralty has been a “phenomenal success”, Adonis says, particularly in integrating public transport, and he believes elected mayors for metropolitan areas, with genuine powers over transport, regeneration, policing and skills, would bring sorely needed prosperity to regional economies that have been struggling compared with London.

The important aspect of this model is to preserve the powers of local authorities. The reason that seven of eight cities to hold referenda last year rejected elected mayors was because, Adonis says, “existing local councillors were opposed to it. To put it bluntly, they saw it as a threat to their own position and it was.”

Speaking of regional economies, what does Adonis think of the claims that his project for high speed rail will, instead of bringing growth to Birmingham and Manchester, merely turn them into glorified dormitory towns within easy reach of London, inflating only their property prices?

He is strenuous in his rebuttal. “Speak to the mayors of Lille, Lyon and Marseille and none of them are saying, ‘please, take our high speed trains away because all our business is being sucked into Paris!’ The people who are using these ludicrous arguments are by and large those who for other reasons, mainly Nimby reasons, are opposed to high speed rail.”

He argues that the cities waiting for HS2 are already rich in culture and there is no danger for investment to disappear to London. On the contrary, high speed rail will give the north greater capacity to grow; he cites a strong correlation between journey times to London and a town’s economic output, with Oxford and Reading’s gross value added outstripping that of Plymouth and Middlesbrough.

A line we heard the other week from Cheryl Gillan, Conservative MP for Amersham, was that “the first phase of construction should be between the Northern cities rather than between Birmingham and London”. Now, this may be just another Nimby excuse, but is there not a case to start in the north and build south? Perhaps, but the reason to start in the south “is simply because the most congested parts of the West Coast Main Line are in the south.”

If Labour were in power, “we would get on with it. This government is utterly useless at delivering anything. It’s three years now since I published the plan for HS2 – they haven’t even managed to complete a public consultation. We still do not have the legislation even for south of Birmingham. They’re talking now of it not even coming forward for another year.”

As a believer in “getting things done”, what does Adonis make of his biggest fan in the Conservative party, Michael Gove, who has since 2010 put the academies programme on a course of steroids?

He supports Gove’s replacement of underperforming comprehensive schools with academies, a policy Adonis first set up in the 10 Downing Street policy unit and implemented as Minister for Schools. He is less keen on other aspects of the Education Secretary’s programme – which took another twist the day before we meet when Gove binned plans for an English Baccalaureate Certificate. “He has developed a lot of right-wing claptrap including a lot of stuff he’s had to reverse, including his entire policy on curriculum and assessments. It was always mad to seek to replace the GCSE with a 1970s exam system.”

Adonis warns Labour against allowing the Conservatives to claim the academies policy as their own; he describes it as a mission to demolish social inequality. “I’d love to make private schools obsolete. What I want them to do is become academies – a number of independent schools have already gone down that route.”

We can see the fee-paying, selective Westminster School from Adonis’s window. It could be a different situation after a generation of the academies programme. “If you could get outstanding education at Pimlico Academy, why would you pay £35,000 to go to Westminster?”

“It’s not respectable in this country to say that you’re buying social privilege but it is respectable to say you’re buying a better education. So if we can remove the better education imperative behind people going private, then I think we can deal with the social exclusivity quite quickly.”

He highlights the impact that Teach First has had in getting highly qualified graduates into the teaching profession. He views the two-year contract as essential because the traditional career path is too daunting for many graduates; but a majority of participants have kept teaching beyond the initial period. “Almost all those people would not have applied in the first place if it wasn’t for Teach First.”

He is now championing the same approach in social care, with Frontline (previously trailed as “Care First”) to be launched in the summer. The scheme will focus on vulnerable young people and address the fact that the profession has been “too amorphous”, without the definition needed to attract enough talented young people.

Lord Adonis’s interests appear eclectic, but – from the growth unlocked by infrastructure to increasing opportunity for disadvantaged young people – they all come together to address “the single biggest challenge facing the country”: eradicating youth unemployment.

This will be the key to Labour’s election strategy but as well as “economic credibility” and “hope” – which are givens – he stresses, “It’s almost always true that the party that has the most credible reform programme is the one that wins elections. It is essential that we don’t allow the Conservatives to paint themselves as the party of change and us as the party of the status quo.”

To date Ed Miliband has defined his leadership of the Labour party by talking of a different approach to capitalism. As one of the highest-profile Blairites still active in Labour how does he view capitalism since the 2008 crash? How will Miliband’s concepts such as predistribution – the idea that we can no longer rely on public spending to increase living standards – and the need to stifle predatory capitalism translate into policies?

Predistribution – “an ugly phrase”, he reckons – “is about jobs with prospects… in terms of pay, training and career development.” Labour paid “too little attention” to median wages when in government, Adonis admits; they didn’t recognise “a problem in the number of jobs the economy was generating”, and assumed “economic growth would take care of pay levels”.

The answer to this is “a work and train route between schools and jobs”. “For every three higher education places there are for 19-year-olds there’s only one decent apprenticeship – we need there to be the same number of each and that’s a huge social and industrial challenge, but it goes to the heart of the mission of the next Labour government.”

He stresses the importance of the public sector setting an example by taking on apprentices – something the coalition have been “terrible” on – but I still get the sense that while Labour may have a narrative that resonates with the electorate, headline policies that a future government can go out and get done are still thin on the ground.

That said, Andrew Adonis is both a thinker and a doer – an unquestionable asset to any political party, and therefore one Labour is lucky to have.

This article appeared in the April 2013 issue of the Young Fabians’ magazine, Anticipations. The interview took place in February.

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