It would be an act of national self-mutilation for Labour to cancel HS2

Ignore the latest critics, the case for High Speed Two is as strong now as when Labour committed itself to the project in 2010.

High Speed Two (HS2) is going through the classic 'cold feet' period which bedevils every major British infrastructure project and which, with our short-termist political culture and poor project management, often leads to them being cancelled.

This phase will continue until the 2015 election, when the temptation for Labour to claim it is 'saving' £42bn by proposing to cancel a 'Tory' project will be intense. It was at a similarly early phase in their construction that the incoming 1974 Labour government cancelled the Channel Tunnel and the new London airport at Maplin Sands in the Thames Estuary, inherited from the Heath government. They were dubbed 'Tory extravagance' although, like HS2, their origins lay in the previous Labour government and there was nothing remotely right-wing about them.

These were stupid short-termist decisions. In the case of Maplin, the last, best opportunity to relocate the UK's principal international gateway to a far larger and more suitable site was thrown away. We are still paying the price in the current impasse over a third runway at Heathrow when the international airports serving Amsterdam. Paris and Frankfurt have six, four and four runways respectively.

It would be a similar act of national self-mutilation to cancel HS2 in 2015, six years into the project.

The case for High Speed Two is as strong now as when Labour committed itself to the project in March 2010 and virtually none of the arguments of the latest critics, including the Institute of Economic Affairs, affect it.

For the key justification is not speed but capacity. There will be an acute shortage of transport capacity from the 2020s to convey freight, commuters and other passengers into and between the major conurbations of London, the West Midlands, the East Midlands and South and West Yorkshire. Since there is no viable plan, let alone political will, to build new motorways between these places, or to dramatically increase air traffic between them, this additional capacity must largely be met by rail or Britain will grind to a halt. Rail is, in any case, the most efficient and green mode of transport for mass passenger and freight movements.

To meet this capacity crunch there is a simple choice: upgrade existing (mostly Victorian) rail lines and stations, or build entirely new lines and stations. Upgrading existing lines is hugely expensive and yields far less additional capacity than building new lines: the last major upgrade of the West Coast Main Line from London to Birmingham and Manchester was recently completed at a cost of £10bn, after a decade of disruption, and yielded only a fraction of the capacity improvements of HS2.

HS2 trebles existing rail capacity between the conurbations it serves, to the benefit not only of intercity services but also local and freight services because of the capacity freed up on the existing lines. Detailed costings that I commissioned in 2009 suggested that to secure just two-thirds of HS2's extra capacity by upgrading existing lines would cost more in cash terms than building HS2.

So there is no free lunch - or pot of gold which can be diverted to other projects in anything but the very short-term, with more costly consequences thereafter.

Debates about the benefits of faster journey times to Birmingham, and whether or not business travellers work productively on trains, are beside the point. If the additional capacity is required, it ought to be provided in the most cost-effective manner.

However, the additional benefits of HS2 are considerable. As HS2 proceeds further north, the time savings become steadily greater: nearly an hour off every journey between London and Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds. The connectivity benefits are also dramatic. HS2 transforms links between the Midlands and the north, as well as between London and those conurbations. HS2 includes a direct interchange with Crossrail  the new east-west underground line through London, opening in 2019 which will convey passengers to the West End, the City and Canary Wharf in a fraction of the time, and with far less than congestion than at present.

A second, north-south, Crossrail line will be needed in London from 2030, and works needs to start on this in parallel with HS2. But that is no excuse for the IEA confusing the two projects, aggregating them and lumping in other projects for good measure, to claim that HS2 will cost £80bn.

Where Labour should be critical is in the coalition's mismanagement of HS2. After three years, there is still no legislation for even the first phase of HS2 from London to Birmingham. Meanwhile, the projected costs have risen sharply  to the currently projected £42.6bn from London through to Manchester and Leeds  in large part because of a massive increase in provision for unplanned contingencies. This accounts for £14bn of the £42.6bn. If the project were well managed there would be no need for such a large contingency reserve, and advice to the government suggests that including this simply bids up the cost of projects.

In 2015 Labour will need to get a grip on HS2 to accelerate progress and reduce costs. But it should not forsake an infrastructure project vital to our economic and social future. After all, the 1970s are no inspiration.

Andrew Adonis was transport secretary in the last Labour government

The planned High Speed Two rail line would run from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.
Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.