Ed Miliband’s visit to Cambridge
I was on my way into town to spend an afternoon behind a few mugs of coffee and a laptop when I caught news of Miliband’s rescheduled visit to Cambridge which was cut short a few days earlier following the news of Thatcher’s death. This was supposed to be the start of official campaigning for the county council elections round these parts, of which my previous blogpost describes things from my local viewpoint.
Ed’s ‘John Major’ soapbox challenge
He’s becoming more comfortable with this – though is looking much more grey than when he snubbed Puffles at the Paralympics last summer. Must have been all of that worrying about having kicked sand in the face of a dragon. Don’t do it again Ed! Actually, had I had Puffles with me there were enough local Labour activists that would have probably prevented him stepping into a big hole on that one – Clare Blair, Dan Radcliffe and all three of my ward district councillors – Jeremy Benstead, Lewis Herbert and George Owers were there.
As always, it was the ordinary members of the public that asked the most interesting questions. As it should be really. Interestingly – and perhaps not surprisingly, they were looking for specific commitments. Repealing the NHS Bill – the Health and Social Care Act and all things education got loud applause from the hundred or so people gathered around. As with these things, crowds snowball – especially if there is a monster TV camera or three around too.
Oxford-Cambridge rail link
Regular readers of this blog will know that this is something I’ve jumped up and down about for quite some time. Which is why I was more than happy that the reopening of the line is a manifesto commitment for Cambridge Labour as it is for Cambridge Lib Dems in the up and coming local council elections. Whether Puffles and I had any influence on that I don’t know…but I’d like to think we had an ickle bit of an influence asking local politicians on Twitter to include it in their local government election manifestos.
Having secured that commitment locally, & having followed the snowball in town, I was going to simply stand and listen to everyone else’s questions, but he was taking so many that I stuck my hand up. Looking like someone who had just rocked up off the streets – big headphones, looking like a mess, he picked me out. “Thank you from taking a break from your music” – or words to that effect. My question was this:
“Cambridge Labour Party has included in its local government election manifesto a commitment to reopen the Oxford to Cambridge Rail Link. Will you back them nationally?”
To which he replied:
Before moving onto the next set. Actually, he also came back to me to repeat the point that Labour nationally will back the reopening of the Oxford-Cambridge railway.
Hostages to fortune?
In one sense I helped create a hostage to fortune – helping secure a written commitment locally that, if he had not backed completely would have been potentially embarrassing media-wise. On the other hand, it was a massive boost for both Labour (and also Lib Dem) activists to get one of their local policies backed by the leader of a large political party. For local Labour activists – all that I’ve spoken to being in favour of this, their hand is now strengthened significantly within their party to develop this policy because of Miliband’s very public statement. In part, that is the benefit of having a senior politician of your party coming to visit. You get to raise local issues and get public commitments that can then be used to put pressure on the policy makers working inside the party machinery.
It’s not a generic policy that applies to the whole of the country. It’s one that is specific only to a minority of constituencies, although the indirect knock-on effects could be far greater – eg reducing the number of journeys into and out of London.
“Hang on a minute Pooffles, that’s a Lib Dem policy!!!”
To be fair to the Lib Dems, they were the ones that made the initial running on this prior to 2010 – see pages 78-9 of their manifesto. Cambridge MP Julian Huppert too has repeatedly made calls for the rail link to be reinstated too. One of the things Coalition MPs criticised Labour for was its record of rail electrification during its time in office – a mere 10 miles. But then to be fair to Ed Miliband, he conceded today to the masses in Cambridge that there were a things that Labour got wrong. This was one of them.
Personally speaking, I’m not too bothered which party claims it as their policy – so long as it gets completed. A similar thing happened with Chesterton Railway Station, due to open in the next couple of years in north Cambridge, reducing congestion near the main station as a result. Both local Lib Dems and local Conservatives wanted to claim the success as theirs. The reality was that it was a bit of both. In the grand scheme of things, the voters don’t really care – they/we are just happy that it’s getting built.
One of the things that Miliband’s commitment does is it strengthen’s Julian Huppert’s hand within the Liberal Democrats too. One of the things that he won’t want is for pressure to re-open the line to be framed as a ‘Labour’ policy. This will inevitably put pressure on both Nick Clegg as leader (will he match Ed Miliband’s public commitment?) and Norman Baker, the Lib Dem minister at the Department for Transport who is their party lead on transport within the coalition.
On the Lib Dems side, all eyes locally regarding this are on Julian Huppert (MP for Cambridge) & Norman Baker. The big problems are between Bedford and Cambridge – and how to link the two. How do we bridge the gap between the central sections? The problems are just as much technical (as EastWestRail can testify to) as they are financial and political. On the latter two points, Ed Miliband’s response has created a sort of political imperative for Baker and the Coalition: What is the best way to respond to this? Policy-wise in the coalition, any decision will be taken by Simon Burns MP, the Minister of State for Rail. But it’s Alexander and Osborne that control the purse strings. (Actually, this is something that Vince Cable should have an interest in too – as should David Willetts at the Department for Business).
On Labour’s side, I’m going to be keeping an eye out on what Burns’ shadow, Lilian Greenwood MP has to say. (Puffles has already tweeted to her). Again, this strengthens her hand in a policy-making world where such localised or regionalised commitments can get swamped by the day-to-day melee of Westminster and party politics.
Are we one step closer to getting that rail link reinstated? I hope so.