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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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