The never-ending slew of messages from Labour figures about the party’s ‘clear’ position on high-speed rail was part of an attempt by the party to show that it is a credible opposition that scrutinises policies rather than blindly supports them. But this got rather confusing last week as each ‘clear position’ was a little different to the last. So today Ed Balls tried to set out Labour’s clear position more clearly when he spoke to the CBI conference. And it turns out that this position is the same as it was at the party’s conference. Here is the section on the new line in the Shadow Chancellor’s speech:
‘Labour supports HS2 and the idea of a new North-South rail link because of capacity constraints on the existing rail network. But our support for it is not at any cost.
‘The Labour Party cannot – and will not – give the government a blank cheque. That is what you would expect from any credible official opposition seeing a Government desperately mismanaging a project. And that is what is happening here with the costs having shot up to £50 billion.
‘Indeed, the costs have gone up by a staggering £10 billion in the last year, so I of course welcome the Prime Minister’s belated recognition that he needs to get a grip.
‘As you at the CBI have said recently: “The increased costs of HS2 are a matter of concern. For HS2 to go ahead it has to wash its face. The value for money test has to be properly applied.”
‘We agree – and we will put the national interest and the taxpayer interest first. We will take a hard-headed look at the costs and benefits of the scheme to ensure this is the best way to spend £50 billion for the future of our country.
‘As Chancellor, I would be a strong advocate for infrastructure investment. And I believe the government should be acting now to bring forward that long-term investment, as the IMF has also argued. But the Chancellor should never simply become a cheerleader for any particular project. Building a consensus about long-term infrastructure does not mean turning a blind eye to value for money.’
The Shadow Chancellor used the CBI’s comments about the project as a boost for his own stance, and the only thing that has changed is that Balls has added a jubilant line about ‘the Prime Minister’s belated recognition that he needs to get a grip’. This is in response to the announcements in David Cameron’s own CBI speech on Sir David Higgins’ new mission to bring the project in under budget and examine the benefits of the new line for all parts of the country.
But Balls is still saying that the party needs to ‘ensure this is the best way to spend £50 billion for the future of our country’. This contrasts with the tone that Mary Creagh took in the Commons last week, which was much more a ‘Labour supports HS2, so long as…’.
Why isn’t he committing to anything, even though Tory attacks on Labour dithering and ‘betrayal’ have gained some traction? The answer can be found in the rest of Balls’ CBI speech: he still thinks that this is an important part of the party’s credibility mission. The Shadow Chancellor repeatedly talked about the ‘tough decisions’ that Labour would face in 2015, which he always does, but he also included an interesting section about where both Labour and the CBI had been wrong in recent years:
‘I’m not going to claim to you that we got everything right in our relationship with business – let alone that you all agreed with everything we did, or will again in future.
‘While you initially had misgivings, we worked hard to make the national minimum wage and the Low Pay Commission work, and it is in that same spirit that we are now working with many employers across the country to promote and, as Ed Miliband said yesterday, incentivise the non-statutory living wage…
‘…And we all failed to see the dangers that were emerging in our banking system in the middle of the last decade, and the inadequacy of bank regulation… and I have certainly learned from that experience.’
The point Balls clearly wants to make here is that Labour as opposition and when it returns to government will have to be endlessly sceptical. It’s also a bit of a snub to Lord Adonis, brought even closer into the fold last week, that Balls is continuing to question whether HS2 is the right use of money. But the real question is whether the party’s continued stance on HS2 will look like credible opposition, or dithering that upsets valuable members of the Labour movement, as council leaders warned last week.
The funny thing is, though, that Labour doesn’t necessarily need credibility to cause trouble in Westminster. As I explained last night, the energy bills row shows that the two Eds can come up with a highly questionable policy and still leave their opponents flailing about.Tags: Ed Balls, HS2, UK politics