“It’s green party policy to oppose HS2”

One of the clearest and most well-known policy positions the Green Party of England and Wales holds, is to scrap HS2…isn’t it?

Well – that depends on what you know about the policymaking process of the Party. The truth is, what is policy and what’s made out to be policy are two different things. Let’s take a look at what’s on record and try to draw a conclusion. There are several ways the Party communicates its political intent:

  • Media statements from spokespeople, in response to the issues of the day;
  • Various Manifestos drafted for local, regional and national elections;
  • The Record of Policy Statements (RoPS), which are positions taken at Conference in response to motions brought by members;
  • The Policies for a Sustainable Society (PSS), which are positions developed by our Policy Working Groups and brought to Conference for approval by members; and finally
  • the Core Values and Philosophical Basis of the Party, which are the cornerstones upon which all the above are founded (or at least they should be!)

We’re going to set aside the Core Values and Philosophical Basis for the purpose of this discussion, as although the reader should absolutely look at them, they don’t address specific items like transport policy. We’re also going to give statements from spokespeople a miss, because a) it’s not reasonable to consider individual’s statements to be binding on a party of members, and b) we’re all capable of misspeaking or misrepresenting our positions under duress or when not adequately prepared.

We will instead start with the 2019 Green Party Manifesto, which was reasonably clear on the Party’s opinion of HS2 at that time:

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So doomed, so damaging, so scrappy; however, this needs to be read in the context of the prevailing convention around Manifestos – which is that they are point-in-time statements of political intent and aren’t binding in the event that a party doesn’t win an election standing on them. So whilst it is the case that the Green Party continues to refer to the 2019 Manifesto, it should not automatically be considered the last word on any of the party’s positions – they can and most likely will change before the next Manifesto is due out in (presumably) 2024.

(There’s another point to be made here, that all three of those objections refer specifically to making public transport improvements using funding ‘freed up’ from scrapping HS2. This is a false dichotomy that plays right into the Tufton Street / IFS / TPA narrative of fiscal scarcity that really doesn’t apply when we’re talking about capital investment in infrastructure, and the Party would do very well to get the hell away from it.)

Now let’s check the RoPS for mentions of HS2. There are two that particularly jump out:

Again, this seems like a fairly clear set of statements handed down in 2011 and 2017. Given there is a chronology here, it’s not unreasonable to presume that six years of sentiment fuelled by what was set out in 2011 will have had a bearing on what was said in 2017, so we’re particularly interested in the 2011 statement (in fact, we’re going to do a piece all about this statement and how it was arrived at in due course – but that’s for another day). That statement has to be read in the context of a very important disclaimer at the top of the RoPS page:

Top of the RoPS page

There are several points in that disclaimer that are worth drawing out (emphases ours):

  • “The Record of Policy Statements…includes motions…which do not amend or overrule the substantial Policies for a Sustainable Society (PSS) but which are a short term response to immediate or transitory situations.”
  • “Policy statements are often passed as Emergency Motions at conference and tend to reflect the immediate political climate. Any statement more than a year old is likely to have been superseded by events…”
  • “Policy statements can never over-rule the PSS or the Philosophical Basis of the Party.”

These three statements make it clear that articles in the RoPS really should not be considered the last word on any policy, as they are point-in-time reactions to current events in much the same way Manifestos are. They are also explicitly forbidden from overruling the policies set out in the Policies for a Sustainable Society. (As mentioned above we will be arguing in due course that that 2011 statement has been very clearly superseded by events, and in fact wasn’t based on reality in the first place.)

So, what of the PSS? Well, it has a whole section dedicated to Transport (the Green Party loves a good policy – preferably as many of them as possible) so there should be plenty to dig into there around High Speed Rail and HS2, right? Right…?

…Wrong. The Transport Policy doesn’t mention HS2 at all (although to be fair, HS2 was only a twinkle in Lord Adonis’s eye when TR244 was written). The only mention of High Speed Rail we can find comes in section TR244, which states:

Let’s repeat that last sentence: “The Green Party supports the principle of a new north-south high speed line which would reduce the number of short-haul flights in the UK.”

This is important because the PSS is meant to be the policy bedrock on which the Party operates. Policy Working Groups spend lots of time (sometimes this can be decades of person-effort) researching, discussing and refining policy positions before bringing them to Conference; these are not positions arrived at lightly, or quickly. The PSS represents the best of the Party’s highly-democratised policymaking process. So what does that mean? It means we have a 2019 Manifesto, and policy statements from 2011 and 2017, that contradict our researched, approved and published Transport policy. A policy that was last updated in Autumn 2017 and has never seen its position on High Speed Rail reviewed or expanded since it was first published in 2006.

So the Green Party has a problem. Its corpus of policy positions across its various platforms is both contradictory and incongruent, but the primacy of the PSS over both the RoPS and individual Manifestos is, in our opinion, amply demonstrated above. In brief: the Party “supports the principle of a North-South High-Speed Rail line that would reduce the number of short-haul flights in the UK” (which, as we’ve argued elsewhere, HS2 will quite clearly do if HS1 and other HSR projects are any benchmark), but opposes HS2 without setting out what an alternative solution might look like. Many of the objections that that opposition relies upon, as we’ve demonstrated on this site and in our Twitter threads, are not based on reality and do not bear close scrutiny.

Regardless of what some Green Party spokespeople and supporters want the Party’s position on HS2 to be, we think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that. We say the Party urgently needs to:

  • set aside the RoPS statements from 2011 and 2017;
  • reconvene the Transport Policy Working Group to review all the available evidence for HS2, and;
  • propose updates to TR244 and bring these to Conference for member approval.

Only then can the Green Party truly say it “has a policy on HS2”.