It is often alleged that projects to develop high-speed rail systems are cases of “pork-barrel” politics. Lots of money, sexy projects, and politicians can’t resist “targeting” the spending to areas of benefit for their reelection campaigns.
With respect to the funds to assist high-speed rail that were in the “stimulus” package early in Obama’s presidency, I addressed this charge: as best I could tell from the information available, it was not pork, at least at the legislative stage.
On the other hand, I have heard allegations that certain lines and stations in Japan’s system are “porky” in that they were built in regions that supported key Liberal Democratic Party politicians, but had less obvious merit in terms of the coherence of the rail system itself.1
The distinction here is in the extent to which a public project is sited in a way consistent with programmatic criteria, on the one hand, or for political objectives, on the other. There is not always a bright line between programmatic decisions and pork-barrel decisions in individual cases. Sometimes the objectives are even aligned! Yet conceptually, the distinction is fairly clear. If the decision regarding where to place a line (for example) are based on objective criteria, where some panel of nonpartisan experts scores various competing proposals in order to determine which ones have the most merit, it’s not pork. If politicians determine where to put a line based on the value of that line for their party (or individual politicians’) constituencies, it’s pork.2
So the politics of a proposed high-speed system in the UK are interesting. Normally, at least in US discussions of pork-barrel politics, we assume that projects get sited based on their providing benefits to the districts of politicians who are strategically positioned to influence the choice of routes and stations. We do not normally think that the electorally secure politicians whose districts the lines will traverse will oppose the project, while the project will mainly benefit locations not currently represented by politicians in the governing party or coalition.
Yet the latter pattern is what we observe in the UK currently, as The Independent reported on 26 June.
David Cameron is pinning his hopes of an outright victory at the next election by pushing ahead with a controversial high-speed rail project. Ministers are convinced the expensive rail link will give Tories the breakthrough in northern cities that they need to gain a majority.
The PM is risking the wrath of the Home Counties, where 14 Tory constituencies with rock-solid majorities are affected by the building of the £33bn line.
The news article goes on to note that the high-speed rail line may cost the Conservative party votes in these “rock-solid” districts, but the party will win them in the 2015 election, anyway. The project will be popular enough in northern areas where the party is targeting many seats for possible pick-up in the next election, so there will be a net gain for the party.
At least within the classic US frame, pork is about rewarding incumbents for their incumbency, and rewarding voters or interest groups for their support of the incumbent. But apparently that is not the case in the UK, for this project.
The difference lies in the highly party-centered nature of parliamentary politics, UK style. As opposed to the more decentralized parties and candidate-centered politics of the US presidential system, in the UK politically based decisions on where to build projects are driven by collective party needs, instead of by needs of individual politicians.
This is exactly the pattern we should expect in a political system like that of the UK. If there is pork–and generally it is assumed that there is some just about everywhere, but not a lot in the UK–it should be based on party criteria. If the article is accurate in its portrayal of the politics of high-speed rail, party pork is precisely what we are seeing. Top governing party leaders propose to spend on a project that may earn the party votes in areas it needs to win the next election, even if the project is opposed by some of the party’s own secure incumbent MPs.
- This does not mean that the shinkansen project as a whole has not been beneficial, only that certain parts of it may have had political, rather than technical, criteria behind their selection as priorities for spending. [↩]
- Note that this implies that the criteria to evaluate programmatic vs. porcine policy are thus largely ones of the process of decision-making, and certainly not normative judgments of whether one likes a given policy choice or not! [↩]