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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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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