Protests against HS2 in the area where the railway is planned to pass through near Lymm in Manchester on April 8, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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We need to go beyond HS2 and build a Liverpool-Leeds rail link

A high-speed rail connection between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds would be transformative for the north.

Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds are separated by a mere 65 miles. Yet board a train at one end of this corridor and it will be nearly two hours before you alight at the other end. We ought to be seriously considering building a high speed alternative.

The current Transpennine Express trains trundle across the Pennines with a meandering listlessness reminiscent of a distracted pony. They huff and puff and creak and groan. Calling them "express" trains is an outrage against the English language. Transpennine passengers enjoy glorious scenery, but appalling speeds. As Andrew Adonis has drily noted, it is "quite an achievement" that the 45 mile journey between Leeds and Manchester takes almost an hour. Although the route is set to be electrified, the work will make only a marginal difference to journey times. 

Of course, Britain is riddled with slow rail connections and plenty of trains huff and puff, but this case is different. This transport corridor links three of the six largest cities in England. Liverpool is the fastest growing city outside of London and Manchester is increasingly heralded as the UK’s second city. Surely our major cities should be better connected?

This issue is even more pressing in light of the economic importance of bringing businesses closer together - so-called "agglomeration economics". Nowadays, economic growth seems increasingly to be driven by large urban hubs where workers and businesses in close proximity compete, collaborate and copy each other much more intensively than they otherwise would do. Mixing in these ways drives innovation and productivity gains. As Evan Davies explained in his recent documentary Mind The Gap, London benefits from these "economies of distance" in a way that other parts of the country do not – and it is powering Britain’s economic recovery as a result.

Yet Davies also emphasises that the area from Liverpool through Manchester to Leeds is the prime candidate for an extended travel to work zone outside of London. With populations expanding again after decades of decline, these cities have the potential to form a robust corridor of economic activity, a northern hub.

This will depend, however, upon better transport links. As things stand, the area is hobbled by poor rail connections. Research by the LSE found that approximately 40 per cent fewer commuting journeys are made between Leeds and Manchester than would be expected given the cities’ proximity and size. Such statistics will hardly surprise regular Transpennine travellers, but they underline the extent to which poor transport connections are holding back business growth.

The government’s current plans for HS2 do nothing to address this problem of east-west connectivity. In fact, while the government has portrayed HS2 as an economic panacea for the north, the matter is far from clear. Many experts have argued that HS2 is more likely to draw more wealth into London than it is likely to spread it northwards. Unsurprising, then, that northerners show little enthusiasm for HS2 with 22 per cent strongly opposing the scheme in Yorkshire and only 10 per cent strongly in favour.

By contrast, a high-speed rail connection between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds would be transformative for the north, drawing journey times down toward those of a standard Underground commute and thereby boosting business growth. It would cost far less than HS2 and would be more readily deliverable.

As things stand, however, we are in danger of allowing the controversy swirling around HS2 to stymie further thinking and plans for high speed rail, plans which should be judged on their own merit. Irrespective of whether the case for HS2 adds up, a connection from Liverpool to Leeds ought to at least be on the policy agenda as an option and subject to the careful cost-benefit evaluation of any major infrastructure project. When discussing high speed rail, we ought to be going beyond HS2.

David Kirkby (@kirkbydj) is a researcher at Bright Blue 

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.