In the early hours of the morning on Friday 5 July, it was confirmed The Labour Party had won the UK election in a landslide victory. Following over 20 years of Conservative governments, incoming Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer quickly set about confirming his new cabinet, including a new Transport Secretary in Louise Haigh.

Haigh has served as MP for Sheffield Heeley, since 2015. Prior to her appointment as Shadow Secretary of State for Transport in November 2021, Haigh served as Starmer’s Shadow Secretary for Northern Ireland from April 2020 to November 2021. 

She had previously also served as shadow minister in various other roles; Shadow Minister of State for Policing (2017-2020), Shadow Minister for the Digital Economy (2016-2017) and Shadow Minister for Civil Service and Digital Reform (2015-2016).

Haigh was declared the “most hard-working” new MP in February 2016 after a study of the activity of MPs elected in 2015, due to her 90 speeches in the House of Commons and 471 parliamentary questions asked during the selected period.

Haigh seems to have engrossed herself in her transport portfolio since her appointment as Shadow Secretary, so it’s no surprise that Starmer named her Transport Secretary in his first government. Following the announcement, she confirmed her ambitions, saying: “We will deliver the biggest overhaul of public transport in a generation, putting passengers first, and transport infrastructure fit for modern Britain.”

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Maritime Policies

Although Haigh’s primary focus is reforming the country’s railways, Labour’s policy promises in its manifesto also focus on port infrastructure and facilities, and green hydrogen. 

Unlike other parties, Labour’s manifesto put a figure on its planned investment in ports and supply chain infrastructure. It promises to spend £1.8bn ($2.2bn) over the five-year parliament. 

The party also pledge “£500m ($632m) to support the manufacturing of green hydrogen.”

Both of these policies will be funded via the “National Wealth Fund” the party says it will create. 

“Labour’s National Wealth Fund will directly invest in ports, hydrogen and industrial clusters in every corner of the country,” the manifesto says. “We will also secure the future of Britain’s automotive and steel industries.” 

Criticisms of Conservative policies

Haigh was a staunch critic of the Integrated Rail Plan announced on 18 November 2021, 11 days before her appointment as Shadow Secretary for Transport: 

“When he was elected Prime Minister, Boris Johnson said he wanted Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) to do for the North what Crossrail did for London. This is another in a long line of broken promises by this Prime Minister to the people of the North,” she said in a statement at the time.

“Growth and jobs are being held back here because we are not well connected with other cities. It is utterly ridiculous that the fourth-largest city in the UK does not have a direct connection to an airport. The Prime Minister is forcing us to continue to rely on creaking Victorian infrastructure.”

Similarly, Haigh was unsurprisingly vocal about ex-PM Rishi Sunak’s move to cancel NPR in November 2022, saying: “Rishi Sunak told voters he would deliver NPR in full – before abandoning it at the first opportunity. A lost decade of broken Tory [Conservative Party] promises has left the north with second-rate infrastructure, and rail services in crisis, holding the economy back.”

Rumours that Sunak was planning to cancel the Birmingham-Manchester leg drew her ire in Parliament, where she said: “What started out as a modern infrastructure plan left by the last Labour government linking our largest northern cities after 13 years of Tory incompetence, waste and broken promises will have turned into a humiliating Conservative failure. A great rail betrayal.”

When the plan to cancel the northern leg of  HS2 was confirmed, Haigh described it as “an absolute farce”. Despite her party leader publicly stating it was not possible to reverse the cancellation, The Telegraph reported that Haigh was still hopeful of resurrecting the connection from Birmingham to Crewe.

Bringing train companies into public ownership

Haigh announced Labour’s plans for Rail in April 2024, which were broadly reflected in the Party Manifesto. One of the main policies is to bring Train Operating Companies (TOCs) back into public ownership, a policy Haigh first announced at the Labour Party Conference in 2022 and has been vocal about since. 

When Avanti West Coast was granted a contract extension, Haigh said in a statement: “Avanti has literally broken records over the last six months for delays and cancellations, and the Conservatives’ answer is to reward failure with millions more in taxpayer cash.”

Conversely, she agreed with the move to strip Transpennine Express of its contract in May 2023, saying: “The next Labour Government will end this sticking plaster politics by bringing our railways back into public ownership as contracts expire, ending the Tories’ failing system, and putting passengers back at the heart of our rail network.”

TOCs will be overseen by a new ‘arms-length’ public body, Great British Railways (GBR), which Labour say will improve efficiency and reduce costs for the taxpayer, with Haigh telling The New Statesman in April 2024 it is a “consciously new system” and it will be “the first time in history” that the railways will be set up to deliver for passengers. 

“Over the last 30 years, they’ve delivered partly on behalf of shareholders and partly on behalf of Network Rail,” she said. “British Rail was set up and run by engineers so this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to actually reform the railways from top to bottom and make sure they work for passengers, the economy and the taxpayer.”

GBR is part of Labour’s commitment to a long-term strategy aligned with the central government’s 10-year infrastructure plan.

Working with the unions

Haigh, who prior to her election worked as a Unite ‘shop steward’ (a position as the union’s representative in the workplace) during her career as a Parliamentary staffer, has shown amicable relations with trade unions and demonstrated support for striking workers in the rail sector, as well as a willingness to negotiate with them – something her predecessors refused to do on multiple occasions.

Less than a year after her appointment as Shadow Transport Secretary, Haigh said at the 2022 ASLEF Union Invest In Rail conference: “As a proud trade unionist, it’s an honour to work with this fantastic union on building a world-class rail network that passengers, workers and the public deserve.”

She tweeted separately that staff in the rail sector “helped keep the country running during the pandemic. They deserve fair pay and respect.”

Her position is her party’s: in Labour’s plan for UK railways announced in April 2024, the party said it would end the “politicised, adversarial approach to industrial relations pursued by the Conservatives,” pledging to ‘reset’ industrial relations. The plan was introduced and signed off by Haigh, and she is widely seen as its author and backer.

The plan also explained that GBR will contain a dedicated team that will be tasked with creating “a more productive relationship” with wail workers and their trade unions and creating an “integrated industrial relations framework” to tackle longer-term issues proactively.

One line in the plan that best summarises Labour’s view of industrial relations in contrast to the Conservative Government is that the railway workforce is viewed “As an asset to be nurtured rather than a cost to be cut.”