all change with Tories and trains

If you’re the kind of person who enjoys camping under starlight whilst eating potatoes cooked in lager cans (or for that matter, actual proper food served in a castle with actual proper beds), there’s a great option for you in the Small Isles off the west coast of Scotland, a ferry ride away from Mallaig. The most highly recommended way to travel here is via the West Highland line, regarded as one of the most scenic railway journeys in the United Kingdom, with a line which twists and turns around, and occasionally through, the mountains of northern Scotland, involving negotiating Ranoch Moor and Corrour, the highest and most remote railway station in the country.

It’s not headline news to learn that this line is incredibly popular with tourists travelling from Glasgow through Fort William to either Oban or Mallaig, whilst the intermediate stations enjoy sporadic visitor numbers. If Tim Leunig, chief economist at CentreForum (no, me neither) had his way, lines such as West Highland and stations such as Spean Bridge, Bridge of Orchy and Upper Tyndrum would be shut down for purely economic purposes. Leunig, you see, wants the Government to close down 30% of Britain’s railway stations.

His reasoning is pure Beeching, and purely cold economics in the grand tradition of conservatives for whom monetary concern trumps everything else. In the context of serious concern about the cost of the railways in this country, it’s no surprise to see both political wings unleash their most extreme responses – nationalisation from the left, harsh economic penalties from the right. As usual, it’s hopeless finding answers from either extreme, for the answers lie somewhere in the middle. Leunig, and many who support him, has drawn the wrong conclusions from his available evidence through what seems to be an ignorance about the realities of rail travel in the UK. This might come as little surprise too – anyone who deals with numbers over experience can’t be entirely trusted to understand the consequence of their mathematics.

 Let’s deal with the West Highland Line. If these proposals were ever to be introduced, the line would barely survive, with it’s 20-odd station stops between Glasgow Queen Street and Mallaig reduced to just three stations; Dumbarton, Fort William and Mallaig itself. Any budding tourist trap, from cafes to walking pursuit organisations, would shut down overnight. Whatever pressure is already forced onto authorities to supply bus or coach links to Scotland’s most remote villages would be increased to such perverse levels that the character in 50 Shades of Grey would feel a bit uneasy. From being one of the UK’s best loved rail routes, the WHL would be reduced to a high-speed tourist trap, hurtling local people and holiday-makers alike through the Highlands in a fast-forward version of a promotional video.

Taken as a whole, the proposal would rob communities of their links to bigger cities, from which follows employment and leisure opportunities. “Let the buses take the strain” made some form of twisted sense in the days of Beeching, who viewed the railways as hopelessly out-dated and out-moded. Had Beeching and his successors been allowed to continue, the UK would be unlike any other country in the developed world, lacking railways out to the suburbs, tourist towns and local communities, employing instead two unconnected super-highway rail lines connecting no more than five major cities together. It’d be impossible to even cross Birmingham, with no link between one side and the other. If you didn’t have a car, or maybe a helicopter, the railways would be inaccessible to you, forever.  Londoners could not visit friends or family in any of the Home Counties immediately surrounding their city, whilst enjoying a rapid high speed ride to Leeds, the first and only English station stop between them and Edinburgh.

Leunig calls leaving stations open as “a preposterous waste of money”. He doesn’t offer much in the way of figures for this, though this might be because there’s little evidence to suggest closing a station is no more affordable than allowing passengers to board a train which might only make one visit every hour. There are bus services to parts of Preston, where I live, less frequent than train services to Lostock Hall, with both realities no more able to ‘disprove’ the worth of the other than any comparison which might be made between the footfall enjoyed by McDonalds and the independent cafe three streets away. In any case, keeping a station open is actually less difficult and cheaper than closing one down, as the legal process of closing down railway stations is so complicated that they’re invariably kept open. “Parliamentary trains”, so called because of the need to clumsily circumnavigate various Railway Acts, are maintained by TOCs to provide a rudimentary service in place of spending the money to remove all trains completely. The 30% plan would, therefore, cost  more money than Leunig realises. To slash so many stations from the network would require TOCs to run hundreds of make-believe trains around the country, often unadvertised deliberately, as part of a ludicrous game of ‘efficiency savings top trumps’.

Beeching transformed our rail network, and did so in all the worst possible ways you could imagine. It’s beyond bizarre that anyone could consider it appropriate to use Beeching as a blueprint for further reforms, a kind of abusive partner-meets-Stockholm syndrome set-up, drawn from years of feeling turned on whenever anybody mentions “Thatcher”, “tell Sid” or “it’s a replacement bus service leaving from the station forecourt”.  What we should be doing – well, what Conservatives should be doing at the very least – is encouraging building MORE stations in MORE locations, adding increased numbers of blobs on rail-maps to allow people greater access to the existing network. George Osborne’s infrastructure plan allowed for the construction of just two new stations across the whole of England – Apperley Bridge and Kirkstall Forge in Yorkshire. He should have allowed the construction of dozens, and then hundreds, and then yet more, bringing people who live in the outcrops and environs the opportunity to access the national network. More construction jobs, more income generated in parts of our cities and major towns which often feel ‘isolated’ from big bang projects, more opportunities for businesses to recruit from a wider net.

In case you thought that your eyes deceived you, Leunig also recommends the introduction of a ‘standing class’ London train, in which people would pay a £1 fare for the right to have no seats at all, as standard. This policy is all manner of bonkers, for reasons of health and safety as well as common human decency, though it’s also worth noting that the Railway Regulation Act 1844 ensured that passengers could no longer be subjected to such inhumane treatment by rail companies.

What riles me more than anything related to the railway issue is just how repetitive these arguments have become. Whilst the country umms and aahs about building a single new station, or electrifying one length of track, Spain continues to  build the longest metro line in Europe, and renowned rail networks in Germany and Italy continue to expand for much less money than it could ever be done here. We’re a backward, slow, ponderous country whose attitude to infrastructure projects is stuck in the steam age. Anybody who considers it correct that we should assist our railway service by slashing it to pieces deserves locking in a waiting room over night without even a Select vending machine for company.

Say It Again

The Internet never forgets, I know this more than most.  It is good practice to keep this in mind whenever you’re launching something – be it a new product, a come-back single, an App, or candidature for a parliamentary career.

Last night, at a suspiciously late hour, the Conservatives chose Jackie Whiteley as their candidate for the forthcoming Bradford West by-election. Two years ago, Ms Whiteley became their spokesman for Rotherham

As is often the case in these things, and again it’s something I know about, the chosen candidate is quoted as being this, that and the other about their ward, division, constituency or what-have-you. In my past experience, these quotes come from a Big Book of Leaflet Copy. Rarely do candidates genuinely speak in that peculiar mix of tourist board and local paper editorial. 
Ms Whiteley is quoted from prior to the 2010 election saying:

“It is a real privilege to be the Parliamentary Spokesman for Rotherham. Having previously campaigned in the seat at the general election and as the owner of a small business, I have got a real understanding of the issues and concerns of Rotherham’s residents and local businesses.  I will continue to campaign passionately for jobs, investment and a brighter future for the community.” 

Ms Whiteley is quoted from last night saying:

“It is a great honour and extremely exciting to be the Conservative candidate for Bradford West.  As the owner of a small business and local employer, I have got a real understanding of the issues and concerns of Bradford’s residents and local businesses.  I will continue to campaign passionately for jobs, investment and a brighter future for the local community.” 

Memo to Conservative candidate HQ – or to any Party for that matter. The Internet remembers. It holds on to facts, faces, quotes and scandals. It also remembers that a candidate sincere about Rotherham can be sincere about Bradford. If you wanted Jackie Whiteley to be passionate about jobs, investment and a brighter future, you have succeeded only in making her sound computer generated and insincere.

Scot Free

Later today, the results of the Scottish Conservative Party Leadership contest will be confirmed. All the smart money, and some of the maverick pounds too, has backed Murdo Fraser, the man who will win the Leadership, thank the men and women and cake bakers and raffle ticket sellers for all their hard work, and then announce the immediate termination of the Scottish Party’s existence.

Murdo thinks the only solution to the “Scottish Problem” which has infected the Conservatives with pox marks and scars is to rip it all up and start again.

And the man has a point.

In terms of brand awareness, word association plays a huge part in ensuring your target audience stay with you. “Labour” brings to mind so many thoughts and considerations, as does “Liberal Democrat” (and post-Coalition, heaven knows how many swear words amongst the images, but that’s for another thread….).

In Scotland “Conservative” is essentially a swearword. At the 1997 General Election, the Party fell   to a complete collapse north of the border, and to this day the Tories have but just one Scottish Member of Parliament. In the Holyrood elections this year, even with a proportional voting system, the Party musters fifteen members, a minority grouplet in one part of the United Kingdom where the current Prime Minister is one of their number. When Murdo Fraser points to the reputation issue as justification for wanting to rebrand the Party, you can see his point.

 At the core of Fraser’s concern is an issue more substantial than changing the letterhead and choosing a decent typeface (though, if the leaked document discussing names is accurate, “The Caledonians sounds like a novelty act on the X-Factor and Scotland First is a discount travel agents).  Fraser complains that the need for a real centre-right party in Scotland is hindered by the negative connotations attached to the words “Conservative” and even “Unionist”. His victory later today would draw a thick black line under the history of the Party going back centuries; Scottish politics would move further away from its already semi-divorced status to the rest of the United Kingdom, becoming ever more European in its political structures. The  new Party would take the Conservative whip, but would form independent from the Cameron-led Conservatives in its policies and practices.

There is danger in this radical idea (and for the Conservatives, this is about as radical as things get). Scottish political culture is a distinctly different place to the English equivalent; at the last Westminster election the swing was to Labour, conversely  at Holyrood the Labour Party was wiped out of its heartlands. Pinning a new badge on a lapel is not enough. For the Conservatives need to combat a distinctly Scottish problem without having the Oak Tree logo and David Cameron’s face moving into frame, to combat the SNP without the connotations of doing so with an English accent.

The influential Conservative blog, ConservativeHome, recommended the strategy in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 election. As Unionists it might come as an unusual tactic to deploy but when everything else has failed…

I am no Tory, though I am certainly no lefty-leaning apologist either. The Labour Party is a walking, talking economic disaster zone, one which has proven itself adept at persuading great swathes of the electorate to support its candidates despite taking those voters for granted. Scotland is going through an unusual two-tier electoral development, pro-Labour at Westminster, creating a built-in Labour bias regardless of circumstances, whilst rejecting the Labour model at Holyrood. The consequences for other parties, including the Scottish Liberal Democrats, is the political equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your belly. There is nothing to suggest the SNP have coherent policies beyond “independence now, oil profits for a brighter tomorrow!” written in North Korean-style poster boards.

I live in Northern England, where “brand Tory” is devalued in some major population centres. Whilst it is true that Conservatives have many councillors in Cheshire, Trafford and even Salford, their numbers in Manchester and Liverpool can be counted…er….in thin air. Whatever repair job is achieved by Fraser in Scotland will need to be carefully watched by the English party.

All democrats need to accept the vibrancy and urgency which comes from a multi-party system. The Labour Party has an attitude of entitlement which is drawn from years of lacklustre opposition; if the Scottish Conservative rebrand fails, it might mean opposing the Labour Party on both sides of the border becomes even harder.

Devil is in the Ballot Box

As a Liberal Democrat supporter and defender of the Coalition, I was surprised to read the results from a ConservativeHome poll that pointed to a slim majority of Conservative supporters feeling positive about a “non-aggression deal” with LibDems at the 2015 general election.

Those LibDems with long enough memories will shudder at the memory of the Liberal/SDP Alliance and the subsequent trouble with ‘electoral pacts’. Democracy was not served well; loyal activists from both sides felt let down by the agreements from the opposite side.

For the Tories and LibDems to agree standing down in tough marginals would be a gift to Labour. Suddenly Rochdale would never seem like a LibDem target again, ditto both Oldham seats. What would happen in Southwark, where Labour have been denied ‘one of their own’ for decades? How would Wales react – Cardiff has a LibDem MP and both sides of Newport almost did. Would Conservative supporters in, say, Westmorland and Lonsdale [a LibDem stronghold, ex-Tory] really want to vote for Tim Farron? Would LibDems in Harrogate vote Conservative?

One consequence of a ‘pact’ which has been barely mentioned is the sudden rise of UKIP. Despite being trounced from every angle, latest figures from the Electoral Commission point to the UK Independence Party being the only mainstream group to enjoy an increase in membership. Both Tory and Labour voters would merrily troop into the UKIP fold, even with AV, if a dodgy deal is agreed betwixt Coalition partners.

LibDem voters at the last election knew that the introduction of STV (our ultimate goal) would have meant a future of coalition governments and compromises between parties. Lord Mandleston in the brilliant “5 Days That Changed Britain” hinted at his realisation that majority governments of the size enjoyed by Thatcher and Blair are things of the past. Britain doesn’t do mammoth mandates anymore. This Coalition could be the start of something big, even if AV is not introduced.

However, I agree with Nick Clegg’s words from before the election; the LibDems are not to become an annexe of the Conservative Party. Any electoral pact would start laying down the foundations. Clegg should publicly dismiss the idea. There are many LibDems who have tasted such agreements before – we tend not to return to a tree if the fruit tastes sour (and from oak trees grow acorns, and they are awful….)