As Lord Andrew Adonis observed about the proposed HS2 high speed rail system, everyone wants the stations and nobody wants the track. This is almost true.
HS2 is where politics and geography collide. Most of the proposed track will run through rural Conservative-held seats to stations in mainly Labour-held urban areas. Ukip is running its local election campaign on the basis of opposition to the whole idea of HS2 – track and stations. How should the Conservatives respond?
The 1867 Second Reform Act and the 1928 Equal Franchise Act actually offer an answer. These were two examples where the Conservatives made an enlightened decision, suffered briefly in the short run, but eventually reaped a lasting electoral reward.
Conservatives had unsuccessfully opposed the First Reform Act of 1832. Once the door to a wider franchise was open, the process was unstoppable. Rather than resist the Liberals’ attempt at the second major act, the Conservatives seized the initiative and introduced their own version of reform, particularly enfranchising working men in urban areas. Thanks to Disraeli’s dynamism, the Conservatives held many urban seats for a century after this reform, but the party is now virtually extinct in most major cities.
In 1928 the Conservatives took the initiative and introduced the Equal Franchise Act, giving men and women the vote on equal terms. Thanks to Baldwin’s reform, for decades after this the Conservatives enjoyed higher support among women than men. This advantage has only recently been lost.
The Conservative Party now has to choose whether wholeheartedly to embrace HS2 to rebuild support in urban areas, or to resist (probably futilely) and be seen to delay the construction to appease potential defectors to Ukip.
History suggests that the best way to remove Ukip’s platform and to regain support in urban areas is for the Conservatives to put the HS into HS2 and speed up the delivery of the project – creating jobs and being seen to be dynamic. Once it is built, HS2 will soon cease to be controversial.
Today no-one would think of campaigning against the NHS, the M40, HS1 or the Channel Tunnel (all controversial in their time), any more than anyone would mount a campaign on a platform of taking votes away from women.