Labour must pledge to safeguard the HS2 route to Manchester
It's time to break the rules to save the future
What I admire most about Keir Starmer is the cold-hearted ruthlessness with which he is pursuing a Labour victory at the next election.
It is genuinely impressive to watch the execution of a strategy to turn around the party’s electoral prospects after the disaster of 2019. What Starmer and his team have successfully done is reform the party so that every decision and choice that is made is done so with a laser-like focus on the people they need to win over. They have optimised everything about the party to appeal to their preferences and tastes of the right voters, in the right places.
And what makes it so refreshingly clear-eyed is that he has done it without the sort of self-indulgent sentimentality that would weigh down a lesser leader.
In a strange way, I’m reminded of the similarly incredible corporate turnaround at Microsoft under current CEO Satya Nadella, who took a troubled company that missed the transition to mobile, and turned it into the cloud-and-AI success story it is today.
However, pursuing a dramatic turnaround strategy isn’t easy. It involves making often brave choices that are controversial. For Microsoft, that meant doing what would have been unthinkable, and effectively sidelining Windows, and instead becoming a company that makes software designed to work across multiple systems1.
Similarly, Starmer hasn’t just gone for the easy wins after taking control of the party. Sure, he has wrapped himself in the Union Jack and kicked out the antisemites, but that was just table-stakes, required to fumigate the smell of the previous regime.
The braver decision he made – Starmer’s Windows dumping moment2 – was to go even further, and and make policy decisions that cut against the preferences of leftish-liberals like me, such as ruling out any membership of the Single Market, or talking tough on immigration.
This makes sense and as the polls for the past two years have shown, it is paying off in a big way. The voters Labour needs to win back almost by definition do not instinctively share all of Labour’s values. So the only way the party is going to win is by positioning itself closer to where the voters it needs are, not with the median member of the party. So if activists aren’t at least a little outside their comfort zone, then that’s a very bad sign for their party’s electoral prospects3.
However, though this positioning logic is completely sound in terms of electoral strategy, it does have trade-offs that Labour will have to navigate when it reaches government.
For example, arguably Starmer’s most consequential strategy decision has been to rule out various tax and spend decisions that would position Labour at odds with the current government. Just as in 1997, there’s a sound electoral logic to it, because it helps maintain Labour’s economic credibility with the voters it needs (people who voted Tory last time), and it mitigates against attacks that frame Labour as being irresponsible with money4.
So that’s why Labour has pledged to essentially to stick to Tory spending plans if Labour win the next election, and why Labour will be boxed in, even if the party is lucky enough to find itself in power.
But there is, of course, one major exception to this: That’s Labour’s commitment to its climate change “mission”, that will see it, by the end of the next Parliament, spending an extra £28bn a year on climate-related investments.
In my view this is a brilliant idea, and is one of the reasons I’ve slowly become a bit of a Starmer shill over the last few years. As my writing on this Substack surely makes clear, green growth is my jam.
But given this massive exception to the rule, you can imagine how it might make people think “but what about spending on other similarly important issues?”.
However, as much as I’d like Labour to turn on the spending taps and likewise pay for, say, the liberation of the Postcode Address File, if the party did it for everyone’s pet cause, it would lose the discipline and risk its reputation for economic credibility. So I understand the logic of trying not to go too mad with the extra spending commitments.
Except there is this one thing.
I’m talking, of course, about HS2. Because despite the remorseless logic of the current strategy, in my view Labour needs to act now and pledge to safeguard the cancelled route to Manchester – because it would be a multi-generational act of national self-sabotage not to do so.
And here’s why.
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