Any investigation into Labour’s transport policy raises an interesting, if unusual, question at the outset: who is in charge of it?
For some years, the Shadow Secretary of State for Transport was nominally Maria Eagle. Ed Miliband appointed her, and she was supposed to be in charge of transport policy as a result. But last year, she objected when Ed Balls started publicly disagreeing with her over HS2 – and was duly removed from the job for wanting to be allowed to do it. The Shadow Chancellor appears to have had rather more clout on the topic than the Shadow Secretary of State.
So you can understand why Eagle’s replacement, the somewhat less effective Mary Creagh, might be playing it safe. Indeed, that’s an understatement – her four and a half months in the role to date have displayed more bubble wrap and cotton wool than even the word “safe” can bear.
Her most radical intervention thus far has been to attack Thomas the Tank Engine for causing the “national scandal” of a shortage of female train drivers (regular readers may recall we suggested some other cartoons that could do with the One Nation treatment). More sane was her statement that more stations ought to be accessible to the disabled and those with pushchairs – an important issue, but still one sufficiently safe that all parties can agree on it.
At the beginning of her tenure, she avoided any chance of enraging Balls by ensuring transport was mainly used to back up the central Labour line about the cost of living, pledging a price cap on rail fares to echo Miliband’s energy freeze. Quite how rail companies are meant to raise essential investment under such strictures is not explained – perhaps this will become the 12th way Ed Balls intends to spend his magical “tax on banks”. As ever, the solution to the cost of living is, in Labour’s view, to promise things will be made cheaper, and damn the practicalities.
Tellingly, the same seems to go for bus services. She complained late last year that bus prices are too high, but proposes that local authorities should receive a larger share of profits – an idea only likely to push prices still higher.
On the bigger, more difficult questions of rail infrastructure, Labour’s policies make their pricing proposals look clear and cogent.
Take HS2, for example. The policy – which ConservativeHome finds deeply questionable – was originally Labour’s brainchild. They duly backed it for their first three years in opposition, until Maria Eagle was defenstrated for holding to that longstanding line.
Creagh, learning from her predecessor’s experience, has carefully toed the line – no matter how much it might vary.
Her first official statement on the topic was essentially a copy and paste job from Ed Balls’ conference speech:
“Labour supports the idea of a new North-South rail link, but under this Government HS2 has been totally mismanaged and the costs have shot up to £50 billion. David Cameron and George Osborne have made clear they will go full steam ahead with this project whatever the cost. Labour will not take this irresponsible approach. There will be no blank cheque for this project or for any project, because we need to ensure it is the best way to spend £50 billion for the future of our country.”
Essentially, this was a confirmation that the position of Shadow Transport Secretary had successfully been steamrollered by Balls – if he wants to leave the policy in doubt just in case he needs £50 billion to make his spending plans look good, then Creagh is willing to give him that option. Transport strategy is not the deciding factor in setting Labour’s transport policy.
Her position has continued to blow with the wind. In early October she said her party would make a decision on the scheme by Spring 2014. On October 25th, she told the FT she would be launching a review of railway policy “within a year”. On October 31st, Labour MPs voted in favour of HS2. By November, she had returned to the original line about government competence and rising costs.
Who knows where they will go next? We could see outright opposition to help Balls promise a splurge come the election, we could see noncommittal concern about the HS2 budget or Labour might still be floating in the limbo of an elusive railway policy review.
Come to that, Labour aren’t even sure if they think the railways should be renationalised or not. Eagle famously described the 2015 election as an “opportunity” for nationalisation, while Creagh now uses the catch-all excuse of a review to defer answering the question.
Sadly, the picture on airports is little different. Having gone into the election with a clear commitment to support Heathrow expansion – albeit after thirteen years of inaction – Eagle put the opposition into reverse. They called for an independent review on the topic, and the coalition unfortunately decided this was the best way to kick the can further down the road.
Last autumn, she declared that the Davies Review is:
“a classic example of fudging the issue”
She is not wrong, but apparently Creagh did not intend it as a criticism. Never one to be out-fudged, she followed that remark with this sweet treat:
“Where will aviation be in two or three years time? I don’t know. Will there be less noisy planes? Quite possibly. Will there be more sustainable airplane fuels? Possibly, even probably. We need to look and see where this commission lands.”
As I said earlier, it’s hard to imagine any way a politician could be less decisive, or more risk averse. It is almost four years after the election, and two and a half years since Labour’s transport policy review began, but they still have no position on either of the two main transport issues facing the country.
If it’s frustrating for anyone hoping for answers, imagine what it must be like for Maria Eagle. The platform she crafted has been either ditched, thrown into doubt, left down to vague reviews or – in the case of her policies on localising transport funding, for example – apparently forgotten about. Ed Balls may have got his way over who controls Labour’s transport policy, but it’s hard to see that his victory has done the Opposition any favours.