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Jim McMahon: ‘My community can’t wait 20 years for the green revolution’

Jim McMahon, Labour's shadow transport secretary, says the PM is like "a kid with a train set" | Alamy

9 min read

Labour’s shadow transport secretary talks to Adam Payne about Boris Johnson being like ‘a kid with a train set’ and why the government’s National Bus Strategy ‘doesn’t even touch the sides’

You need to be realistic before you can be radical. That’s according to Jim McMahon, Labour’s shadow transport secretary. The MP for Oldham West and Royton, who Keir Starmer elevated to the shadow front bench after becoming the party’s leader a year ago, spoke to The House magazine 24 hours after Boris Johnson unveiled the government’s highly-anticipated National Bus Strategy – and he was not impressed.

The Prime Minister said the strategy would “make buses the transport of choice” for millions after, a decade which saw usage fall across the country. It is central to his promise to “level up” neglected areas of the country, as well as his mission to make the UK net zero by 2050.

However, the long-awaited reveal was a “disappointment” for McMahon – who accused Johnson of making promises for public transport without a long-term plan for delivering on them.

He highlighted the pledge to roll out 4,000 zero-emission buses by 2025 as a case in point. Johnson unveiled this policy in February last year after winning the 2019 general election, but the announcement more than a year later added little “meat to the bone”, McMahon said.

“You would have thought from the announcement over a year ago to where we are today the government would have put forward a bolder ambition for replacing the bus fleet. Only two per cent of the current fleet is zero-emission and we are only replacing 4,000 of 32,000.”

As far as transformative change goes, it “doesn’t even touch the sides”, he added.

“This was a huge opportunity to create skilled, working-class jobs in our regions and give a boost to bus manufacturers with a proper pipeline of investment they could get behind.”

If it was in government, Labour says it would implement a long-term strategy for replacing the country’s entire fleet of 32,000 buses with electric and hydrogen models by 2030.

Not only is this target more ambitious than Johnson’s, McMahon argues, but it is more “realistic” as it recognises the task of delivering a green revolution through a transformation of public transport will last well beyond the next general election. 

“This from the government is meant to be a national bus strategy. So why is it only lasting a single parliament?”

Being “rooted in reality” is a running theme of McMahon’s vision for public transport.

“Keir is very clear in what he expects of us who serve in the shadow cabinet and how we perform. It’s about substance and integrity and looking forwards, not backwards.”

Boris Johnson is like a kid with a train set who gets bored very quickly and moves onto the next toy. 

In towns like Oldham, where McMahon has lived for most of his life and spent 13 years as a councillor before being elected to Westminster in 2015, convincing people to ditch cars for buses and trains is a “generational challenge if you really mean it and want to it properly”.

But Johnson is more interested in short-term headlines than long-term thinking, McMahon said.

“He’s like a kid with a train set who gets bored very quickly and moves onto the next toy. 

“Like all of these bold projects he keeps announcing, the supposed bridge from Scotland to Northern Ireland, for example, you pull a lever and find there’s nothing behind it.”

Starmer rewarded McMahon’s support for his successful leadership campaign with his first job on the shadow front bench when he handed him the transport brief. The issue of transport is close to the 40-year-old’s heart — and not just because the Labour MP is a self-professed classic car enthusiast.

In the post-industrial town of Oldham, which sits a few miles north-east of central Manchester, unreliable public transport is perennial complaint among residents. 

He has made his home in the town with his wife, two sons and their dog, Lola, commuting 200 miles to Westminster during the week. 

“Honestly, I’ve never stopped talking about buses,” McMahon jokes. “The problem is not many people have been listening recently for the very understandable reason they have been thinking about the pandemic, saving lives and getting the economy up-and-running again.”

Jim McMahon and Keir Starmer visit a foodbank in Oldham, January 2020


However McMahon, who spoke to The House magazine with Labour trailing the Conservatives in recent opinion polls, rejected the suggestion he was struggling to get noticed because the party’s new leadership was not getting a lot of attention either.

“It will take time to rebuild the bridges – we need to regain the trust and confidence of people who might have voted for us in the past but didn’t do so at the last election,” he said.

“But the pace at which Keir has hit the ground running as leader and the tone he is striking are exactly where we need to be as a party.”

He insisted that the new-look Labour Party would shape the agenda.

“What you’ll see over the next couple of years is Labour setting out a very bold and ambitious agenda for the country. It is one that is absolutely rooted in reality and meets people where they are in terms of their lived experience”.

If you’re a person who is working two or three jobs, while trying to look after your family at the same time, you just can’t switch from a private car to public transport if local public transport doesn’t work for you

Appreciating “lived experience” is what McMahon, a lorry driver’s son who left school at 16 to become an electrical technician at the University of Manchester, believes is key to making sure people in towns like Oldham are on board with radical transport policy. 

He suggested they would not be in a position to swap their cars for buses, trains and trams if those services were not significantly  more reliable and affordable than they are now.

“The principle of polluter pays is a sound one, but you’ve got to balance that with the ability of people to make that modal shift. If you’re a person who is working two or three jobs, while trying to look after your family at the same time, you just can’t switch from a private car to public transport if local public transport doesn’t work for you.”

This is why he says moves to make driving and parking private vehicles in congested areas more expensive, as called for by some transport groups, should not happen faster than the upgrading of public transport – otherwise they will not work.

It is also for this reason Labour, despite the pressure of groups like Campaign For Better Transport, will almost certainly not be pushing for Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak to end the decade-long freeze to fuel duty any time soon.

“It’s not for me to set out, this soon before a general election, what our tax strategy would be and I certainly wouldn’t do it in isolation of a detailed conversation with the shadow Treasury team,” McMahon said. “But I will tell you this: If the government believes it can resolve our climate change objectives simply by increasing taxation, then it has completely missed the point. 

“Most people don’t have access to an alternative. I just don’t believe that you can have a green strategy that is so heavily dependent on punishing people for their traveling behaviours when they don’t have the option of shifting to more environmentally-friendly ones.”

McMahon was also keen to stress that the government’s plans to expand public transport came after a decade during which bus fares had increased while services had been slashed. 

For a bus ticket from Oldham to Manchester, I will pay twice what any passenger in London will pay for a journey of the same length

The Labour Party estimates the Conservative government will oversee the reduction of 5,850 bus services in the UK by the end of this parliament if the current rate continues. 

“It’s all well and good for transport secretary Grant Shapps to say he is going to put a cap on bus fares going forward, but what on earth is he doing about fare increases over the last decade, which now means that for many people using the local bus isn’t an option?

“For a bus ticket from Oldham to Manchester, I will pay twice what any passenger in London will pay for a journey of the same length,” McMahon said.

It his understanding of the lives of people in places where Johnson has promised to “level up” that has helped earn McMahon a reputation as one of Labour’s rising stars. 

Public transport policy must be transformational, he says – but it must not ignore the practical constraints on people in towns like Oldham who need transformation the most.

Labour says the Department for Transport must act now to give local authorities the funding and powers they need to set up new bus services after years of cuts to routes. It also wants there to be a greater government emphasis on discouraging the use of private cars for localised “micro journeys”, like parents taking their children to school. 

“I want to see the crowded terraced streets of Oldham, where cars are parked bumper to bumper on both sides of the pavement, transformed into green, attractive places where children feel safe. And at the moment many people are denied that,” McMahon said.

“Unless we bridge people’s everyday experiences with the action we need them to take to meet climate change objectives then we are not going to get the rate of change we need.”

“It’s the same for electric cars,” he explained. “The cost of electric cars is still very high for most people and in a town like Oldham people are driving cars that are that are 10, 12, or 15 years-old. 

“If we ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars in 2030, it’s going to take a long time for those vehicles to come through to the used car market in a town like mine. At least 2040.

“So, the question is: what are we doing in the interim? 

“Because my community can’t wait 20 years for the green revolution.”

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