Unspontaneous protest

Press freedom in Sri Lanka, mace-wielding John McDonnell, the return of Wegg-Prosser - and much more

A Heath Row

I travel everywhere by organic dow, but don't necessarily expect others to live up to my absurdly high ethical standards, least not the masses of under-sunned Brits for whom the proposed new runway at Heathrow Airport will provide yet more exciting opportunities to flay themselves on Mediterranean beaches.

Not everyone is delighted by this prospect though, and among the political classes a surprisingly broad consensus has emerged against the plan. Green Queen Caroline Lucas compared plans for peaceful protests against the development to those of the suffragettes (er, didn't they throw an axe at the prime minister?), explaining that a new runway: "..would lead to spiralling carbon dioxide emissions, unacceptable noise pollution for millions living in London and the South East and worsening air quality." Other groups joining the 'Climate Rush' include the pleasant Christians at Ekklesia, whose co-director Simon Barrow recently wrote for newstatesman.com's Faith Column about the need to use our wealth for the common good – which presumably doesn't include holidays in Malta.

Rumbold on Pickled Politics felt that supporters of the runway had failed to articulate a plausible case, positing that more efficient airport management could solve many of Heathrow's current troubles. He argued that improved rail networks could help cut the number of flights in and out – obviating the need for the new runway and cutting carbon emissions.

Speculating over the fallout from the pending decision, Iain Dale predicted trouble ahead for Hilary "not a Bennite" Benn. He wrote:

"It's difficult to see how Climate Change Minister Ed Miliband could defend it, but he won't go. The one Minister I can see resigning is Hilary Benn, who has already made his position very clear.

As if that wasn't exciting enough, top celebs like Emma Thompson and TV's Alistair McGowan joined megabucks Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith (the only PPC I've ever seen with an art nouveau font on his website) in buying up tracts of earmarked land to thwart the developers. Will it work? Probably not, but worth a shot.

Thursday saw the project given government approval, provoking the ire of, amongst others, left-winger John McDonnell MP, who reached for the mace in what Iain Dale described as an “unspontaneous protest”…

What have we learned this week?

Terrific news: one of this blog's favourites, Ben Wegg-Prosser has been given a new platform! Labour List, the new enterprise of Derek Draper (unkindly monikered "Dolly" by bloggers of the right) promises posts from Benjamin, though the Moscow-based former Number 10 weblord has yet to contribute. The inevitable tussle between Labour List and the longer-established Labour Home to become the primary online base for activists is "absolutely on" sources behind the project whisper – so it may be worth keeping an eye on.

Around the World

Concerns over the state of press freedom in Sri Lanka peaked this week, with the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga, a highly respected journalist who had consistently campaigned to expose corruption and human rights abuses. Chit Chat ran images from the scene, while London-based Rine mourned both his death and the state of government on the island, angrily asking:

"Who do we have at this moment who will fight against the injustice that is a corrupt government terrorising its own people under the veil
of a war?"

Lakimba was less gracious. Acknowledging that: "It is indeed sad news when a human being has been killed prior to their time," he added the caveat, "...even when a person with a twisted mind and a strong anti-Sri Lankan agenda like Mr. Lasantha Wickramatunga".

Videos of the Week

Following President Bush's melancholy and almost ruminative final press conference, numerous YouTubers decided to stitch together retrospectives. This is a rather beautiful look back on his eight baffling years in office.

Back in Britain, the Tories have launched a series of new ads highlighting the scale of the national debt, including this one, in which an adorable infant is born into a life of burdened misery thanks to the prime minister.

Quote of the Week

"Has some charmer organised a denial of service attack on LabourList just as it was being featured live on Channel 4 News? Bit of a coincidence that it should "go down" at the precise moment if there was no mischief afoot. Very strange."

A somewhat paranoid Chris Paul fears online sabotage.

Paul Evans is a freelance journalist, and formerly worked for an MP. He lives in London, but maintains his Somerset roots by drinking cider.
Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.