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Thursday 19th January 2012 | 11:42
The media debate around High-Speed Rail has assumed a somewhat ‘turkeys, Christmas’ quality with almost every news piece drawing a map of the route through deepest Toryshire, showing it ripping up this green and pleasant land. The camera then pans effortlessly to ‘STOP HS2’ signs on farm gates and an anguish-ridden family struggling to rescue the value of their property from an oncoming train, as if they were themselves tied to the line in some Victorian melodrama. Why on earth, this argument suggests, would the Conservative Party go ahead with a project that would be so devastating to their voters?
Away from the dramatics, however, where would these voters actually go? Labour and the Liberal Democrats were probably more gushing in their support for the project than the Conservatives. Anti-HS2 independents running against incumbents seem more likely to draw support – and UKIP has been keen to court defections on the issue. Equally, those opposed to the project could engage in a mass abstention.
But such ideas ignore the electoral realities of the HS2 route, the majority of which is so True Blue that MPs are unlikely to feel vulnerable. The 16 Conservative seats in question have an average majority of 13,561. Those in two (Beaconsfield and South Northamptonshire) stand in excess of 20,000 votes – and even Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan, seen to be on the rocks since news of the sale of her home came to light, seems unlikely to see her 16,710 vote lead dissipate. Such a solid electoral geography contrasts clearly with the abandoned Third Runway project, with the Heathrow flight path crossing electorally volatile West London. Dan Byles, the adventurer MP for North Warwickshire, is possibly the most at risk from HS2 antagonists – sitting, as he does, on a majority of just 54 votes. But Mr Byles, along with many of many of his colleagues along the route, has been vociferous in his opposition. Should residents wish to express their support for his position, they will probably do so by continuing to vote Conservative.
Secondly, much as those Conservative voters living close to the proposed railway will no doubt oppose the project, a YouGov poll on 5th/6th January told a different story. While a small plurality of the public support HS2, 42% to 37%, this widens to a 17 point in favour among Conservative voters, 50% to 33%.
The question even reminds respondents that the line will cost £32billion, making support for the project surprising among a group of voters usually averse to increased public spending. Part of this may be that it’s a project being brought about by ‘their’ Government, whose plans they are more likely to trust. It is also possible that perceptions the HS2 project is a ‘rich man’s toy’ play some part in this pattern, with those in social grades ABC1 supporting the plans 45% to 36%, while C2DEs against by 40% to 37%.
To give the ‘Stop HS2’ campaign some cheer, however, is the Dods PoliticsHome/CityAM ‘Voice of the City’ poll of 408 City figures, showing a majority opposed to the HS2 project, 51% to 40%. As such, the image of fanatical support among the business community, which proponents of the plan like to project, is probably erroneous, with support very much depending on the type and location of that business.
As such, the current state of play for and against the project is a much more complex political and electoral calculation than it fist appears.