Space on trains: the only valid argument for HS2

Economic and jobs benefits will be negligible.

The case for the new high speed rail network - the route of which was announced today - is all becoming a bit muddled. Anticipating a backlash against the project, government spokespeople have been defending it all over the place. The trouble is, there are too many versions of the defence, and most of them just don't hold water.

A Department for Transport spokesman told the Telegraph:

HS2 will bring cities closer together, drive regeneration, tackle overcrowding and stimulate economic growth.

George Osborne said the new line would be:

..not just about cutting journey times – although it does cut in half the journey time from Manchester to London – it’s also about the new stations, the prosperity that’s going to come, the jobs that are going to be created around this infrastructure.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said:

It's not just about journey times, it is also about capacity. We are finding the railways are overcrowded. We've seen massive growth in rail passenger numbers, so this is taking HS2 so it serves the north.

The key claims for the line have been that a) joining London to the north and Midlands will help redistribute jobs, that b) the UK is behind the rest of Europe in terms of fast connectivity between cities, that c) the line will generally stimulate economic growth, and that d) rail transport is at capacity and we simply need more lines. Let's just unpack each claim:

a) The new HS2 will redistribute jobs.

The presence of a high speed rail will probably redistribute jobs. But it will most likely redistribute them in the direction of London and the South East. While Birmingham and Manchester (which both have stations on the new line) will also benefit a bit, this will be at the expense of the rest of the region. There won't be many stations, and the small towns which miss out on these will miss out economically too.

b) The UK lacks fast connectivity between cities compared to other places in Europe.

Although European trains are faster (France's TGV services have been reaching 200mph since 1981) - our cities are on average closer together. This means that journey times between major cities are actually faster than our European competitors, according to campaigners.

c) The rail line will stimulate economic growth.

The model from which the government is making these estimates is "exquisitely sensitive to small variations in growth assumptions", according to Dr J Savin, whose extensive financial analysis of the economic benefits of the line can be read here. Making broad claims about the economic advantages, he argues, is therefore distinctly shaky. He also writes that the uneven spread of benefits is not desirable either:

"A project that the entire UK pays for but that benefits two regions disproportionately, one of them being the richest parts of London, is hardly equitable."

d) We need more lines, as rail transport is at capacity.

In the final analysis, the only argument for the new HS2 that actually holds is that the rail services are too crowded. Network Rail told the BBC that the southern section of the West Coast Main Line will be "effectively full" by 2024. We do need more lines - but not for all the reasons the government is putting forward.

HS2 route was announced today. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide