A compromising position

Whatever else I may think about Jeremy Corbyn, I have always regarded him as a conviction politician. However, politics is a very rough trade and, when push comes to shove, anyone who aspires to success in that business has to be prepared to put considerations of politics before any convictions that he or she may hold, and Mr Corbyn is, it appears, also at the mercy of that law of the jungle.

Mr Corbyn’s political star is, of course, in ascendancy. In a matter of a few weeks his status has transformed from a rank outsider in the Labour leadership stakes, scrabbling around for the signatures of sufficient MPs to get his name on the ballot paper, to be regarded now as the favourite to succeed to the post. He has almost reached celebrity status; packing the streets of Camden recently with the fervent, or just curious, wanting to hear him speak. There was a time, when I was much younger and less cynical, when I would have been at risk of being inspired by what he had to say that evening, and I confess that there are elements within his speech that have some appeal even to my politically jaded palate.

Whatever his possible election might mean for the future prospects for power of the Labour Party, I feel that one advantage of an Opposition under his leadership would be the end to the cosy consensus politics that have stupefied political debate in this country. We would at last have true alternatives on the table and proper discussion of them taking place, and “Amen to that!” I say.

But, as I advertised at the start of this posting, all of this inspiration stuff is at risk of being tainted by the day-to-day necessities of becoming leader in the first place, and rule number one appears to be don’t upset your backers. One particular policy that appears to be causing Mr Corbyn problems in this respect is HS2.

The day after his Camden triumph Mr Corbyn was in Leeds to launch his policy paper Northern Future. That same morning an article appeared in The Guardian that included what was claimed to be a quote from the document:

“The Conservative government has torn schools away from the support networks of local authorities, regardless of the wishes of teachers and parents, and made them accountable directly to Whitehall, bypassing parents and local communities. They 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.”

Whilst the second sentence does not actually say that HS2 should be scrapped, it is a clear nod in that direction, and the article promised that Mr Corbyn would, in his launch speech, “raise a question over [HS2]”.

However, when the launch took place neither document nor speech contained a single reference to HS2. The first sentence about schools is still in the document, word for word on page 5, but the second sentence is nowhere to be seen, providing a strong indication of it being excised from the original draft prior to publication. This is certainly the view expressed in an article in the Birmingham Mail, which offers the explanation that “the statement was included in a draft policy document published by mistake”. The article also tells us that, “There was some confusion after his campaign team said the comments were not currently his official position” – some confusion indeed!

It does appear that Mr Corbyn has been on something of a journey regarding his position on HS2. He has in the past spoken warmly about the project, but he failed to support both the hybrid Bill and the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill in Commons divisions, including voting against the latter at Third Reading. There must be a strong suspicion that he now harbours doubts about HS2, doubts that led to the sentence referring to HS2 being included in the original draft of Northern Future.

It is difficult not to conclude that some person or persons has been at work behind the scenes to persuade Mr Corbyn not to be critical of HS2. I will leave you to speculate on the identity of this person or persons, but suggest that those with the biggest influence over Mr Corbyn are probably his backers on the left of the party. So when fellow leadership hopeful Andy Burnham referred to “vested interests getting their claws into Westminster” during his visit to Camden recently (as I reported in my blog Camden contemplations, posted 21 Jul 2015), these interests may be closer to home than he might have thought at the time.

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