Jonathan Isaby is Chief Executive of theTaxPayers’ Alliance.
The Government is in the middle of yet another relaunch of HS2, with the scheme now being pushed by a new public face in the form of Sir David Higgins, who is on an eye-watering taxpayer-funded annual salary of £591,000 for his trouble. But some things remain the same: HS2 is an unpopular white elephant of a project which generates little enthusiasm, even in those regions which are supposed to benefit.
Such opposition comes despite intensive taxpayer-funded lobbying, with HS2 Ltd and the Department for Transport having spent £500,000 on a variety of lobbying outfits. Even cash-strapped regional transport authorities like Centro seem to regard their responsibility for delivering quality public transport to be best discharged by lobbying themselves about HS2.
But what are the political – and indeed electoral – implications for a party’s stance on high speed rail? In order to find out, the HS2 Action Alliance commissioned a ComRes poll of more than 2,000 adults which was conducted last weekend – and the results should make sobering reading for HS2’s political cheerleaders.
These latest figures show that 52 per cent of Britons oppose the current plans to build HS2 while around 30 per cent support the project, confirming the trend from previous polls that there is a solid majority opposed to HS2.
Their questions then explored the political price that politicians are paying for pushing HS2. Looking firstly at the Conservative Party, the poll indicates that promoting HS2 will do little good for those wearing blue rosettes, as demonstrated by the following finding:
To what extent, if any, are you more or less likely to support the Conservative Party at the next election because of their plans to build the HS2 rail line between London and the North of England?
|A lot more likely to support the Conservative Party||2%|
|A little more likely to support the Conservative Party||4%|
|A little less likely to support the Conservative Party||9%|
|A lot less likely to support the Conservative Party||19%|
HS2 is certainly not attracting voters to the party. Quite the opposite, in fact: while a total of 6 per cent of voters are more likely to support the party because of their plans to build HS2 (and only 2 per cent a lot more likely), no fewer than 28 per cent of voters say it makes them less likely to vote Conservative. Amongst older voters, a third of those aged 55 or over (the focus of this week’s Budget) say they are less likely to support the Conservatives because of HS2.
But, I hear you say, national figures might be misleading. After all, Tory strategists may well calculate that the price of local opposition in mainly safe seats along the route is worth paying for additional votes they could muster in swing constituencies in the West Midlands and North West. But the ComRes data shows that such a contention has little basis in fact. The polling indicates that HS2 is strongly opposed by 24 per cent in the North West, 22 per cent in Yorkshire and 27 per cent in the West Midlands, with strong support for the proposals at just 6 per cent in the North East, 10 per cent in Yorkshire and 5 per cent in the West Midlands.
Such minimal support suggests that the Conservative Party is paying a political price in those regions where HS2 is supposed to encourage support. Just 2 per cent of voters in the North West and 2 per cent of voters in the West Midlands say they are a lot more likely to support the party because of HS2, with 17 per cent of voters in the West Midlands saying they are a lot less likely to support the party because of the project.
What about the Labour Party? It seems that the political price for Ed Miliband and Ed Balls abandoning support for HS2 would be negligible: just 6 per cent of voters say they would be a lot less likely to support Labour if it opposed HS2, while 19 per cent of voters would be more likely to vote for the party should it drop its support for the scheme.
To what extent, if any, would you be more or less likely to support the Labour Party if they opposed the current plans for HS2? Would it make you…
|A lot more likely to support Labour||9%|
|A little more likely to support Labour||10%|
|A little less likely to support Labour||6%|
|A lot less likely to support Labour||6%|
The TaxPayers’ Alliance has campaigned against the proposals for HS2 from the outset. It is unlikely to make a commercial return and would represent a monumental waste of taxpayers’ money. And the current PR campaign for the scheme also reminds us of the need to tackle the invidious practice of taxpayer-funded lobbying.
Yet despite those efforts, the politics of HS2 are as unconvincing as the economics. Voters across the country are unpersuaded by HS2 and they appear willing to punish the Conservative Party for their continued support for the project. By contrast, Labour could drop its support for the project with negligible political impact. Who would bet against Ed Balls announcing just such a decision at some point in the next twelve months?
ComRes interviewed 2,053 GB adults aged 18+ online between 14th and 16th March 2014. Data were weighted to be representative of all GB adults aged 18+.