In the run up to the Labour conference I want to look at a few ideas that might be “game changers” for them. Today let us consider what might happen if they opposed HS2.
At first sight this does not look likely or sensible. After all Labour started this project off when in government. They represent many of the northern city seats that are said to benefit from it. Traditionally Labour has been pro train and anti car. Their union backers tend to favour the railways, and the engineering unions like the idea of such a large project. Their Transport Shadow Secretary soon got behind the party line and has been a supporter.
However, some of the Labour Big Beasts no longer back this scheme. Lord Mandelson has revealed that it was a back of the envelope political calculation, partly to ensnare the Conservatives. Alistair Darling has looked again at the numbers and thinks that what might have been sensible at the old costings is unaffordable now the price has gone up so much. Maybe his old Treasury official contacts are also quietly lobbying him, as Treasury spending officials are clearly alarmed by the rise in prospective costs.
Alistair Darling has some weight with the Miliband group. He has also proposed a neat way of u turning or climbing down. They can say that a project which made sense at £30bn does not make sense at £50bn or £73 bn. It could, they can argue, pre-empt too much of the budget.
Mr Balls has always been sceptical about the costs. What better for him than to announce the cancellation or postponement of HS2 for the next Parliament. It would free a large sum of money which Labour could claim would pay for all the extra items they might wish to buy, without changing the spending totals from the Coalition plans. HS2 could be a very flexible friend, the credit card that kept on giving, the source of funding for just about everything they might want to offer the electors at no extra tax or borrowing cost.
Some of this might be a sleight of hand. No doubt they could exaggerate the true costs of HS2 next Parliament. But it would also make it more difficult for the Coalition, keen to keep Labour’s budgets tied to Coalition ideas of affordable.
It would still be quite a u turn. It would still leave Labour with some very bruised supporters who love trains and like this particular train. You cannot, however, entirely rule it out. The Coalition needs to be careful, as it would be vulnerable if it is left supporting such an expensive project at a time when Prudence is meant to be back in fashion. Labour could even use some of the “savings” to offer a lower borrowing figure than the Coalition whilst being able to boost spending as well. That would be a cheeky move.
Politicians often worry too much about u turns. U turns in opposition are exactly what the public wants, as they rejected the Opposition party’s approach at a previous election. Even in government U turns are no bad thing if you turn away from a very unpopular or unwise policy.