Labour "making decision" over whether to back HS2 next spring

New shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh says "we are in the process of making that decision" when asked if Labour will support the High Speed 2 bill.

I noted yesterday that new shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh had made some strikingly sceptical comments about High Speed 2, warning, in an echo of Ed Balls's conference speech, that "we need to ensure it is the best way to spend £50 billion for the future of our country".

Today, in another significant intervention, Creagh has revealed that Labour is "in the process" of deciding whether or not to support the HS2 bill next spring. While her predecessor, Maria Eagle, declared in her conference speech, "we support High Speed 2", Labour has now moved to a position of genuine agnosticism.

Here's Creagh's exchange with Adam Boulton on Sky News earlier today.

Adam Boulton: The situation is going to be again, we are talking about 2015, talking about Labour coming in are they in favour of it or not?

Mary Creagh: The Bill is going through Parliament we are going to have it on the 31st October, the paving Bill, we are then going to have...

AB: Which you are going to support?

MC: We are. And then we are going to have the big hybrid Bill coming forward in March or April next year so there is a lot of work to be done and we will be going through the government’s figures with a fine tooth comb.

AB: Can you pledge whether you are going to support it or not?

MC:  Well we are in the process of making that decision and when we make it you’ll be the first to know.

Creagh later added:

It would be, you know, it would be easier if they’d done more work on it, we are still actually at the very beginnings of it. I was at the Department yesterday, I looked at the proposals for the line to go from Birmingham to Leeds, there are going to be a lot of communities that are looking at it and making their input on what the line could do and of course as soon as you start to introduce tunnelling it is £100m per kilometre, that is very expensive.

Based on that, the odds are against Labour backing the bill in March/April. If the party does U-turn, the choice facing the coalition will be whether to persist with the project in the face of opposition, or to argue that it is not viable without cross-party support (due to the time frame involved) and to find its own way of spending that £50bn.

A placard placed by the Stop HS2 Campaign sits in a hedegrow near to the planned location of the new high speed rail link in Knutsford. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.