Today’s judgments won't derail HS2 - but serious questions remain

High court rules on compensation over HS2.

The Department for Transport will, once again, be in the spotlight today as the High Court gets set to rule on whether the government followed proper procedures before approving its HS2 rail project. Given the recent lamentable procedural failures over rail franchising, tension within the Department will likely be running high.

From the government’s point of view the best outcome is obviously a green light from the court. Not only will this save blushes at the Department, it will allow the coalition to push, full steam ahead – if that is the correct idiom for a project that will not bear fruit until 2033 – with what has become one of its flagship projects.

However, even if the judicial review does come down in favour of the protest groups it is unlikely that HS2 will be halted completely: in rail terms it will receive an amber light rather than a red one.

The protestors no doubt hope that any legal setback to the project will open the way for further challenges which will pull HS2 into a quagmire of reviews and disputes which could carry on until the government finally loses interest or, at least, until the next election is called.

This hope is probably in vain. Given the number of recent setbacks and U-turns the government will be in no mood, or position, to compromise over a scheme it has so solidly thrown its weight behind. Just like the weary commuter, waiting for the train back home after a long day at work, the government will likely accept the delay with resigned determination. This is doubtless helped by the fact that there is widespread support across the political spectrum for HS2. For many on the left it is one of those big infrastructure projects which not only creates jobs and opportunities but also helps to narrow geographical disparities between London and part of the country.

What the outcome of the judicial review will not do is resolve, conclusively, whether HS2 is a sensible idea. Here, so many questions remain unanswered.

There is the argument that the benefits of the spending should be spread more widely. For example, despite commitments on electrification, parts of the rail network in the South West remain chronically deprived of investment. Certainly, dividing the pot of HS2 money up more equally between the regions would produce a less dramatic, less visible end result. However, smaller incremental rail improvements across the country may yield a much greater economic benefit than one big, budget-busting project.

In many ways this is an argument about the need for speed. HS2 will certainly reduce journey times between London and the midlands and parts of the north, however, given the lofty sums of money involved the improvements are marginal at best. Moreover, given the fact that many people use their time on the train fairly productively – whether working or relaxing – there is a real question mark over whether a faster journey accrues genuine economic benefits. The debate is further complicated by the point that without improving regional transport connections – those roads and public transport services which feed into the stations HS2 serves – a reduction of time spent on the train probably becomes pretty pointless.

The one thing HS2 will certainly do is help improve capacity; something much needed on a rail network that is now bursting at the seams. However, HS2 is an expensive solution to this issue and there are simpler ways of increasing capacity. Adjusting the existing infrastructure to accommodate double-decker and longer trains, for example, would cost a fraction of HS2.

The answer to all of these points – and many more – will simply not come from the outcome of today’s review. Nor have they come from government, which has presented a less than compelling case for its policy. Only time and hindsight, it seems, will help us form a view of whether HS2 is a sound scheme. For now, the jury is still out.

The Department for Transport will, once again, be in the spotlight. Photograph: Getty Images

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Is Labour really as doomed as it seems? The polls have got it wrong before

Pollsters often overrate Labour's performance. But in two elections, the opposite happened. 

Few moments in the Labour Party’s history can have felt as gloomy as this one. Going into a general election that almost no-one expects them to win, their overall opinion polling is appalling. Labour seems becalmed in the mid-20s; the Conservative Party has rocketed into the mid- to high-40s, and has even touched 50 per cent in one survey.

The numbers underlying those voting intention figures seem, if anything, worse. The Conservatives have huge leads on leadership and economic competence – often even more reliable indicators of election results than the headline numbers. High turnout groups such as the over-65s have turned against Labour in unprecedented numbers. Working-class Brits have swung towards the Conservative, placing once-safe Labour seats in danger. There are limited, but highly suggestive, hints among the data that the swing against Labour is higher in its own marginal seats – a potentially toxic development for any party seeking to hang on to MPs, as Conservatives defending apparently impregnable majorities under John Major in 1997 would attest.

All the while, Labour seems confused about what it is really for. Try as he might, Keir Starmer’s term as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary has been marred by a fatal confusion and indecision about the extent of the UK’s future engagement with the European Union’s single market. Labour seems neither the party of Brexit nor of Remain, but one determined to irritate as many voters as possible. A similar situation reigns in Scotland, where nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon face Conservative Unionists led by Ruth Davidson, and Labour struggles even to gain a hearing.

Many Labour policy offers – free primary school meals for all, the promise of free university tuition, nationalising the railways, upholding the triple lock of pensions, opposing National Insurance rises for the self-employed – are pleasingly universal, while in isolation appealing to different electoral groups. But together, they represent a massive shift of resources to higher-income Brits that would take huge tax rises to offset. Labour is dangerously close to offering a regressive package under the guise of left-wing radicalism. This is pretty much as far from the British people’s electoral sweet spot as it is possible to imagine.

It is therefore little wonder that Labour lags so far behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. Even some Labour strongholds appear likely to fall - regional polls from London and Wales suggest that many Labour seats will be lost in the party’s remaining citadels. Brutal stories are already coming in from the campaign trail. Rumours fly of truly epochal losses - though it is important to note that other anecdotes seem much less dramatic.

Still, there are other indicators – all too easily missed in the heat of the moment – that point in the other direction. Labour’s performance in local by-elections has been dire for the main opposition party, but the swing towards the Conservatives has been running at "only" just over 2 per cent. The party has certainly suffered some big swings against it, and it has lost wards to the Conservatives in local authorities as varied as Hertfordshire, Harrow and Middlesborough. But there is no evidence that its vote has collapsed on the scale that some of the polling suggests.

Relatively recent history should also give us pause before we write Labour off altogether. Consider the last two general elections in which Labour had near-death experiences, in both 1983 and 2010. Britain’s third party - first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats - seemed about to overtake Labour in the popular vote, and steal scores of seats from the bigger progressive party. On both occasions, Labour was able to draw on hitherto unguessed-at wells of cultural identity and strength to pull away right at the campaign’s end. These are in fact the only elections in recent times when the polls have underrated, rather than overestimated, Labour’s likely score. It might be that the same phenomenon emerges this time.

The Conservatives’ huge lead right now has not resulted from a sudden collapse in Labour support, but rather from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s well-publicised implosion. If anything, after about a year of steady decline, the last week or two has seen Labour’s twelve months of slow deflation grind to a halt. Labour’s numbers have even ticked up a point or two as some voters appear to rally around "their" flag. It might be that, as you squeeze the Labour vote down, it becomes more resilient to further shrinkage.

As the Conservatives try to push into Labour’s heartlands, they might find it harder and harder to persuade voters across, from Ukip as well as from Labour. The Conservatives’ image is still far from good in such communities, whatever the underanalysed and separate appeal of PM May as a strong, considered leader in need of a negotiator’s mandate in Europe. Voters might be attracted to May, and repelled by Corbyn - that does not necessarily mean that they will actually vote Conservative. There is little evidence, so far, of any realignment in how voters see themselves – whether they "are" Labour or Conservative, rather than the more ephemeral question of whether they will simply vote for those parties.

Humans always look for patterns. Experts are no exception, while journalists and commentators can always jump to rapid – but wrong – conclusions in the overexcited heat of an election campaign. So it is with the threat of a Labour catastrophe on 8 June. The danger of just such a result is definitely there. But some of the data points we already have, and two recent elections at which Labour walked close to an abyss, cast a little bit of doubt on the inevitability of such an outcome. There are still just over six weeks to go. A Conservative landslide is still quite likely. But it is not certain. We should keep an eye out for the many hints that May’s gamble might end in a rather less crushing victory than we have been led to expect.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan: forthcoming, May 2017).

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