I never expected to say this after Eric Pickles destroyed our regional development agencies, but the party has a chance next week to position itself as the defender of the North.
The private consensus in Brighton was that Ed Balls was preparing us for a Labour government to scupper HS2. His remarks, and those of other party spokesman after his speech on Monday, went beyond legitimate worries over escalating costs. Balls has got his eyes on the £50bn projected cost of HS2 for other projects. The problem is that in practice that money has been assembled for this scheme and would not automatically be available for health or schools.
How depressingly familiar all this is. I thought the Olympics marked an end of timid party squabbling Britain unable to take the big decisions at the right time. In fact we are late with this scheme. The West Coast main line is already over capacity south of Rugby. That’s why places like Blackpool are denied a direct service. North of Rugby HS2 would connect our great northern cities like Leeds and Manchester and crucially allow the existing rail network to improve the service to towns and cities not directly on the HS2 line.
There are broadly three groups opposed to HS2. There are the small but vocal number of people directly affected by the line who’s homes are already blighted. We must sympathise with them and compensate them very generously. I know how it feels. My home was demolished for a roundabout in the 1960s.
There is the London lobby already campaigning for Crossrail 2 oblivious to the historic scandalous imbalance in transport investment between the capital and the rest of the country.
And now we have elements of the Labour Party and others who want to spend the money elsewhere. Their argument ignores the point I made above that £50bn won’t be available to be transferred, and it fails to answer the question of what will happen when we are trying to use a Victorian railway two hundred years after it was built.
So in Manchester next week I would suggest the Tories seize the initiative. They will be meeting in a building that symbolises the need to move on when it comes to rail investment. Manchester Central station closed in 1969 and is now their conference centre. The government are investing in the Northern Hub, the Ordsall Chord, and electrifying the Liverpool to Manchester line to dramatically improve services on the existing network across the North.
The Transport Secretary Patrick Mcloughlin should burnish his credentials as a former miner and claim that it is the Tories who have the best interests of the North at heart in backing HS2. They certainly need some arguments after Labour’s conference in Brighton.
I asked last week for some distinctive policies for Labour to campaign on and to be fair we got some. The promise to scrap the bedroom tax and the energy price freeze are the best indications yet of how different an Ed led party is from how his brother would have run things.
These are concrete proposals with a definite left wing thrust. The more the energy companies squeal the more will people identify with Ed. The claim that, in response to world market forces, energy prices go up like a rocket and down like a feather rings true with hard pressed families in the North.
The question is how broad this appeal will be? Are there enough struggling voters in the South to join Ed’s crusade or will they be frightened off as they were when Neil Kinnock was in charge?