Ever since the High Speed 2 Hybrid Bill was passed by MPs with a whopping majority the campaign to oppose building the new high speed line has been dying. Not that you’d know this by reading the national & local media as investigative journalism is a sick bunny nowadays. Churnalism has replaced it and the anti campaign knows its endless press releases will be soon regurgitated without analysis by a media short of staff but with far more space to fill. Of course, the anti campaign also has a few high profile media friends who’re happy to help (but more of them another time).
So, it’s time someone cast a critical & factual eye to do some of the work most of the 4th estate can’t be bothered to anymore.
When the project was first announced back in 2009 it was clear that (like any other major building project) it would face some opposition. As it was Govt funded transport project it was obvious the usual suspects opposed to such spending, like the Taxpayers Alliance & Institute of Economic Affairs would object. What was less clear was what real grassroots opposition would form.
What’s been interesting is, despite exaggerated claims from some quarters the opposition, whilst often shrill, has been far smaller than on other projects like the M25, Heathrow expansion or even HS1. In fact, its core is around two areas, the Chilterns and Warwickshire. Not unexpectedly, the real opposition is located solely along the route & the vast majority is from people who are either affected by the route, or who claim to be as they want compensation. In short (although politicians are loathe to really admit this as they think it plays badly) it’s the good old British NIMBY problem.
Now, you could argue that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to protect your own turf. I have some sympathy with that view & I certainly have sympathy for those genuinely affected by Hs2 who face upheaval & disruption. But what’s become clear over the past few years is that the organised anti hs2 campaign has stooped to new levels in dishonesty, deceit & underhand tactics.
The main anti Hs2 players
The anti Hs2 campaign claims there are three. In reality there’s two as one (AGAHST) is so ineffectual, under resourced & with little meaningful involvement it’s dead in the water. That leaves the High Speed 2 Action Alliance (Hs2aa) and StopHs2. Supposedly, there’s meant to be a ‘network’ of over 90 local action groups. Most of these are moribund or no longer exist. So these claims remind me of Hitler in his bunker, directing imaginary Panzer divisions on a map. Hs2aa used to publish a list of these supposed groups on its website but after I dissected it on Twitter & highlighted the fact most were at best moribund (& some downright false) it mysteriously disappeared. StopHs2 is based in Warks. It’s essentially bankrolled by a local businessman & has shrunk in recent years. It’s ‘Chair’, Penny Gaines has decamped to Dorset, where her only involvement seems to be ‘interpreting’ on Twitter what various Committees examining Hs2 say. The other mouthpiece is professional agitator Joe Rukin whose latest stunt was to dress up his 9 year old son in his Scout uniform & get him to read a script to the Petitioning Committee.
There’s an interesting view on that in the Scotsman newspaper:
Rukin has proved to be a bit of an own goal for the anti campaign as he’s just as much a self-publicist as he is a campaigner against Hs2. He’s also shown up their lack of support in a very ill-judged attempt to stand for Parliament during the 2010 election. In a supposed anti stronghold to boot! The result? He polled 0.8% of the vote.
I’ll look at each of the three groups in greater detail in a later blog.
Privately, those opposed to Hs2 admit amongst themselves that they had little real chance of stopping the project as it has cross party support and the need for extra rail capacity is impossible for them to realistically challenge. Their plans were threefold, to try & persuade MPs to vote down the Hybrid Bill, stop it with legal actions, or (as a last resort) try & drag out the Hybrid Bill petitioning process so that costs would rise and politicians would either lose interest or change their minds.
Needless to say, none of this has gone to plan – at all…
After several years of debate & despite outrageous claims & tactics from antis the Hs2 Hybrid Bill passed its 2nd reading with a massive majority of 452 votes to 41 against. So much for trying to lie to MPs then…
Legal actions were equally unsuccessful. Various elements of the anti campaign banded together to bring 22 different actions, from Judicial Reviews to appeals to the Supreme court. They lost all but the most minor one, which didn’t stop Hs2 anyway, but sent the compensation scheme back to the drawing board! These legal actions have all but bankrupted Hs2aa, which is fading away now its headbanging tactics have failed. I wonder if this long list of failed court cases is a record?
Petitioning the Hybrid Bill Ctte has been a failure too. Although a record 1925 petitions were received the penny dropped a few months later when the members of the Committee were appointed & soon began to tackle the petitions with gusto. Ably abetted by Committee members such as Sir Peter Bottomley MP (who is a pleasure to watch, as he’s firm, fair & doesn’t stand any nonsense) the Committee Chair, Robert Syms MP, has made it clear his intention is to ensure the Hybrid Bill is clear to receive Royal Assent by December 2016. So, another anti failure then…
Public failings versus fantasies on social media
A main plank of the anti’s campaign has been the use of social media. This has been both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is it allowed them to pretend they were far more numerous than they really are. The downside is that social media can’t be controlled & their use of it has exposed them as a bewildered bunch many of whom are totally divorced from reality. It’s also allowed them to be tracked & shows that many of them who say they’re against Hs2 out of environmental reasons are in fact, just Nimbys personally affected by the route who’re hiding behind a green figleaf. It’s also shown some of them to be the most outrageous liars who’ll say anything if they think it will stop Hs2 (it hasn’t). If you want to see these fantasists in action, just follow the #hs2 hashtag on Twitter.
Away from Social media their public gatherings have shown how few of them there really are. They used to hold yearly demonstrations outside Parliament but each one was supported by a dwindling number of people. I first documented one 3 years ago. They tried to claim there was 500 people attending, although photographs make it obvious there’s less. In 2013 they (unwisely) drew attention to the fact I was there taking pictures, the whole crowd booed me at the organisers request and one very silly woman did this:
Of course, the moral of the story is; never, ever flick the V’s at a photojournalist!
By the time the Hybrid Bill debate came around on 28th April 2014 their numbers had plummeted. Whilst 452 MPs voted yes, there were less than 90 anti demonstrators outside. A ratio of 4.5 to 1!
For a local campaign that would be a lousy turnout. For a supposed national campaign it was an absolute disaster. Far more folks demonstrated against Hs1! How on earth they can keep a straight face when some of them say their campaign is both growing & ‘relentless’ I’ll never know, but self delusion has always featured heavily in their campaign. So, where are all these voters who are supposedly ready to bring down any party that supports Hs2 & will sweep UKIP to power? They exist only in their imaginations. A further admission of failure has been the cancellation of their other annual event. In summer the anti groups would organise a gathering at Stafford Showground where they’d swap campaign tactics & pretend they were getting somewhere. The numbers weren’t great, with only a few hundred in attendance and in 2014 the event was cancelled. Ones’ not been arranged for 2015 either.
The cavalry fail to arrive…
By 2011 it was clear the anti campaign was flagging. ‘Action’ groups like these were falling by the wayside:
The campaign’s organisers were praying that the announcement of phase 2 of the route would reinvigorate their campaign & lead to a plethora of new groups & activists joining it. Their hopes were misplaced. After the announcement & despite the length of the route only a handful of new groups were formed (all of them on the route) but significantly, none from major cities along it. This led to further demoralisation within the campaign & further exposed the fact it was overwhelmingly a ‘nimby’ issue. A classic example was when Sir David Higgins launched his ‘Hs2 plus’ report in Manchester in 2014. Only a handful of demonstrators were outside. Also significantly, not a single one was from Manchester, they were all from a Mid Cheshire group masquerading as residents of the city!
Once again, reality failed to match up to the hype. Here’s a little gem of a report from the Manchester Evening News, who covered the event:
Honestly, you get 12 people outside, none from the population of 2.7m folks and you seriously try & compare the anti Hs2 campaign to the poll tax demonstrations? How deluded can you get? This is Sid & Doris Bonkers territory here…
What next for the anti Hs2 campaign?
Oblivion really. All their tactics have failed. They’re skint and their activist base is dying. Now reality has dawned most of the few remaining activist groups they have are concentrating on mitigation & trying to get the best for their communities. There’s still a few who cling on, like old Japanese soldiers who can’t accept the war is over, but what are they going to do apart from rant on Twitter? They’re too few in numbers & spread across too many constituencies to have any real political clout. Despite 5 years of campaigning they’ve failed to break the political consensus and all three parties likely to form a Govet in 2015 still back the project. Some still cling to the belief that UKIP will ride to their rescue, but there’s more chance of Lord Lucan being found riding Shergar than UKIP getting into power or wielding real influence. If I was UKIP I’d be rather pissed off at the anti Hs2 campaigners. They claimed to have more votes to offer then they really have, hence UKIPs failure to get a single Cllr elected in Warks (supposedly an anti Hs2 ‘stronghold’) and more recently, the fact the Lib Dems beat UKIP in a real anti hs2 stronghold (Aylesbury Vale) where the party won two seats! It’s doubtful that the anti Hs2 campaign would have managed to get this far if UKIP hadn’t latched on to it as a cynical ploy to steal votes. Let’s not forget that the party proposed to build not 1 but 3 high speed lines in its 2010 manifesto. The two groups suit each other really. Both tend to be elderly, afraid of the future & prone to telling porkies, so you can see there’s a natural fit. I’ll write more on UKIP & the anti Hs2 mob in another blog.
It’s looking like the anti Hs2 campaign will go down in history, but not for the reasons the antis would like. It’s one of the first campaigns waged on social media & it’s been an object lesson in how NOT to do it! They handicapped themselves from the start. There were too many amateurs telling too many lies & attracting too many extremists. The supposed ‘professionals’ got caught up in these lies & found them too hard to resist. This has set the tone for the whole sorry campaign.
History will not judge them well…
UPDATE (10th March 2015)
Oh dear! At today’s Hs2 Committee hearing, Denham Against Hs2 Chairman Frank Partridge let the cat out of the bag about the number of Hs2 ‘Action’ groups. The likes of Hs2aa are still pretending there are over 90. Frank admitted to the Committee that the real number is ’40 to 50′ – around half the numbers claimed! More proof (if it were needed) that the campaign’s been exaggerating the size of its activist base.