Camden contemplations

The oil that lubricates our political system is confrontation. In the House of Commons the protagonists face each other, gladiator-like, on benches with the front rows separated at two sword lengths by red lines woven into the carpet – yes I know that this seating arrangement originated from the Commons occupying a royal chapel in the old Palace of Westminster, but the layout was retained by our Victorian predecessors when they rebuilt after the fire of 1834, deeming it appropriate. It is also significant that those who take the whip of the main political party occupying the benches to the left of Mr Speaker are termed “Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition”. Without effective opposition the important function of the Commons to scrutinise government legislative proposals is severely compromised.

I have in the past (see footnote 1) expressed concern that this is precisely what has happened in the case of the HS2 project. I despair that the cosy alliance of all three main parties in the last parliament has allowed a very sub-optimal proposal to be under consideration by our legislature without effective challenge. My passage through this personal slough of despond has, however, been eased a little by some ostensibly off-the-cuff comments made recently by Labour leadership contender and MP for Leigh (in Greater Manchester), Andy Burnham.

These comments were uttered by Mr Burnham at a question-and-answer session held at Netley Primary School in Camden. I assume that he was invited there to address Labour Party members by Sir Keir Starmer, who has taken the Holborn and St Pancras seat vacated by Frank Dobson and has endorsed Mr Burnham’s candidacy. The candid and tentative nature of what he had to say indicated, on the face of it, a certain degree of naivety on Mr Burnham’s part: firstly, in not having a developed position on HS2 ready for his audience, many for whom HS2 is a high-priority issue, and secondly for considering that, being amongst friends, he could bare his soul on the subject without his comments reaching a wider audience – apparently he asked them not to tweet his views. However, Mr Burnham is an experienced politician and, far from an innocent revelation, what may have occurred was a pre-planned “soft” launch of his proposed break from current Labour Party policy on HS2, in order to see the reaction.

Needless to say, a full report of what he said was printed in the local paper, the Camden New Journal – surprisingly, it doesn’t appear to have made the nationals.

In his “thinking aloud” account to his audience, he confessed that he “had his doubts” and is “thinking very carefully” about the HS2 project. He explained:

“I worry that this is one of those issues where there is a Westminster-centric approach, where everybody says: ‘This is the bees’ knees’ and ‘We’ve got to have this’, and it leaves people behind.”

He also cited “vested interests getting their claws into Westminster and driving these issues on” and leaving the public thinking: “what’s that all about?”

He posed the key question that others have asked before him:

“If you are to spend £50billion on the rail infrastructure of this country, would [HS2] be the first thing you’d do?”

It is evident that Mr Burnham is inclined to think that it probably isn’t. He told his London audience that the public in the north of England wanted better investment in east-west links and that “nobody’s clamouring for [HS2]”.

Whilst it is probably somewhat of an exaggeration to claim that nobody in the North wants HS2, the latest opinion poll results from YouGov, commissioned by the Sunday Times, show support for HS2 in the North is indeed lower than in London, the “rest of the South” and the Midlands and Wales (see footnote 2).

Mr Burnham is reported in the newspaper article as promising to “comment further on where he stood on HS2 later in his leadership campaign” and “pledging to visit affected areas in Camden for a detailed look”. As far as I can determine, the other three leadership candidates have not yet made their respective positions on HS2 clear.

If we are to believe what the HS2 fanatics tell us, a Member of Parliament representing a constituency in Greater Manchester should be hanging out the bunting for HS2, salivating with Pavlovian anticipation of the benefits that it will bring. It must be a trifle irksome for the “We love HS2” brigade that at least one Manchester MP is, it seems, not welcoming the prospect of HS2 with unbounded enthusiasm, and that he could be Labour’s next Leader – although the Camden New Journal brands him the “bookmaker’s favourite”, which is probably the kiss of death on his chances.

The chances are, I feel, that Baron Adonis of Camden Town in the London Borough of Camden may be planning to call in on Mr Burnham in the near future to inflict a spot of Maoist-style re-education on his renegade colleague.

Footnotes:

  1. See the doubts that I expressed about whether the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill would be effectively scrutinised in my blog Blind faith (posted 20 May 2013). Also I commented on the strange position of Shadow Transport Minister, Lilian Greenwood, supporting HS2, despite expressing doubts about the choice of route corridor in my blog A lesson in environmentalism, part 3 (posted 3 Oct 2013).
  2. The public support and opposition regarding HS2, as at July 2015, is summarised on page 6 of the poll results. Support in the North is quoted as 29 per cent, with 53 per cent opposing and 18 per cent undecided. The support levels for the other three areas that I cite in my blog are: London 35 per cent, Rest of the South 34 per cent, and Midlands/Wales 33 per cent.
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