Over the last few weeks, we’ve tried to report on the stances of the Labour Leadership candidates on HS2. Besides the fact that Liz Kendall remains resolutely in favour, it’s been a bit of a moving feast, especially in the case of the man who polling shows is the front runner, Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn, who voted against the HS2 Paving Bill, and did not vote at all on the Hybrid Bill seems to have got more for HS2 as the campaign has gone on, but not unequivocally so. Notably, his final ‘Northern Future’ document missed out a lament that the Tories “have suspended the much needed investment in rail infrastructure in the north to fund HS2, a project with the aim of turning our great regional cities into dormitories for London businesses”, which appeared in an earlier draft of the document.
When then talking specifically about rail, he then stated a wish to ‘stimulate the economy by increasing investment in new high speed rail, creating jobs and connecting more towns and cities‘. Whilst there is an obvious difference between ‘high speed rail’ and HS2 itself, this week he said he would not cancel HS2 if Prime Minister, because work would have already started by then, though this may well not be the case with industry experts now predicting for HS2 construction to start two years late.
Of course this skips the more immediate issue for any new Labour leader, that HS2 has not passed through the Commons (let alone the Lords), and has to be voted on again, maybe next year, maybe later than that. By that time Corbyns’ worry that HS2 could take cash which could be spent elsewhere on the rail network may be more pronounced. Specifically, when he said he thought HS2 could not be stopped after the next election, he cited electrification of Southampton to the Midlands as a project which needed to go ahead for freight reasons, but this part of the ‘electric spine’ will surely join the Midland Mainline in the long grass when Network Rail report back in a few months about the ongoing viability of future projects.
Yvette Cooper has said little, well actually nothing, about HS2 during the campaign. Whilst a spokesman for her campaign would only go so far as saying “questions to be asked about value for money”, she refused to reply to, let alone meet, constituents in her constituency effected by HS2 before the General Election. However, maybe the most encouraging comment has actually come from a proponent of HS2, head of Manchester City Council, Sir Richard Leese. In an article promoting Cooper as the only viable choice for leader, he said: “ I have some pretty big policy differences with Cooper, not least her equivocation over HS2 which as an MP from the north of England is pretty incomprehensible”, which can only suggest that she is more vocal about it in private than in public.
So finally, that leaves us with Andy Burnham, who at least for now is like Cooper, and has the distinction of HS2 going through his constituency. We say ‘for now’ as the Golborne link is possibly the most pointless bit of HS2 Phase 2, only being of use to allow ‘classic compatible’ trains to run North from Manchester onto the West Coast Mainline (other trains would join the WCML at Crewe). Previously Burnham has warned Ed Miliband that he might rebel in HS2 votes, but did not. Since then, Burnham had said “The top transport priority for our country is east-west links rather than north-south”, and now has come up with the classic way for leaders to get rid of an idea they don’t like, but don’t want to be seen responsible for getting rid of, to hold a review into whether or not to build HS2. Having a review of rail investment priorities would be unlikely to see HS2 coming out on top given the amount it would cost, but crucially on HS2 Burnham seems to be saying ‘not now’, but also saying ‘not never’.