Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham at the Labour conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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HS2 critic Andy Burnham to vote in favour tonight

Shadow health secretary will back the bill, despite previous criticisms, as it only applies to the first phase of the project.

Andy Burnham caused some ripples earlier this year when he refused to rule out voting against High Speed 2 in an interview with me for the NS (for which he was swiftly slapped down by Ed Miliband's office). He said then: "I’ve given no guarantees about supporting it. I’m not talking as a frontbencher here, I’m talking as the MP for Leigh. I will not let my constituents carry on paying through their taxes for the rail network when they don’t have reasonable access to it. It’s as simple as that. If the government’s going to lay new railtrack in my constituency, it can bloody well give us a station."

When I asked how he would respond if the government did not meet his demands, he suggested that Labour (which backs the project) would have to suspend collective responsibility and allow him to vote against the rail project. "If they don’t look again at the depot, I’d have to say to my own whips: 'everyone's constituency is going to be affected differently and everyone’s going to have to account. You can’t have a blanket position because it doesn’t affect everybody equally does it?'"

With this in mind, I asked a spokesman for Burnham whether the shadow health secretary would be voting in favour of HS2 tonight. He confirmed that he would be, but rightly noted that the vote covers the first phase of the scheme, "which only goes as far as Crewe" and therefore does not extend to Burnham's constituency. It is the vote on the second phase of the project (north of Birmingham), for which a separate bill will be tabled, that will be the real test of his position.

After Ed Balls's threat to withdraw support from the project last year failed to lead to outright opposition, it looks increasingly likely that Labour will continue to back the government. Shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh said yesterday: "Labour is supporting HS2 to cut congestion on the railways, better connect our great cities and help deliver a One Nation economic recovery.  HS2 will link and help regenerate our cities in the Midlands and North, get young people into work and help our small businesses to grow.

"The government has finally brought this Bill to Parliament after four years of delays and mismanagement which have caused costs to rise.

"We will continue to hold the government to account for keeping costs down on the project as there can be no blank cheque for this or any other project."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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