Election drama

Playwrights stay up past bedtime to produce instant political theatre.

The play's the thing: as politicians stayed up way past bedtime on 6 May, a group of playwrights were also pulling an all-nighter to script five brand new dramas. Whilst politicos struggled with squaring the circles of government by Venn diagram, the "first five plays of the new parliament" were cast, rehearsed and produced by the Supporting Wall theatre company in just 24 hours. The resulting show was Election Drama, a one-night-only, rapid response to the election, which was staged at the New Players Theatre barely 48 hours after polls closed. Truly a breathtaking feat of theatrical chutzpah.

There was a palpable party mood amongst the youngish, probably leftish spectators, even if the party had overtones of the ship's band on the deck of the Titanic. Election metaphors flew everywhere: when someone was given a seat number in a non-existent row B, it was suggested by the man next to me that she "enter into negotiations with Rows A and C".

Staged just round the corner from where the "Take Back Parliament" protest had begun only hours before, this was a rare opening for dramatists to engage directly with unfolding events -- and to take the piss out of Ukip. Would they seize the opportunity to hang a tale on a hung parliament, or would they bottle it?

In truth, aside from some last minute on-trend references, carbon dating the moment of performance, as it were, the playlets could have been written at any time over the past year. But there was no doubting the authentic rawness of the performances as the actors struggled, scripts in hand, to deliver these newly-hatched dramas. At times, it was like watching a rehearsed reading; at others, the performers managed to deliver substantially more.

Our compères for the evening were the producers Ben Monks and Will Young, and in the spirit of making it up as you go along, they were standing in for an unknown celeb who couldn't make it (praise be). In fact, they were in danger of upstaging the actors in the likeability stakes, and their "back-room boy pushed to front of stage" personae worked like a charm.

The plays themselves were a varied bunch. Most eschewed actual politicians, perhaps confirming their irrelevance in everyday affairs. As might be expected, given the exigencies of rehearsal time and brevity, the most successful were those with sensibly curtailed aims, and the sort of broad-brush strokes that an audience can grasp quickly. That said, there was at times a real flexing of ambition.

Understandably, two of the playwrights scavenged off existing texts: Rex Obano's The Wrong Party reworked The Birthday Party and reproduced the surreal Pinteresque menace pretty well. A dishevelled and stringy Brown -- looking absolutely nothing like Brown -- is browbeaten by thuggish apparatchiks, the reincarnations of Pinter's Goldberg and McCann, who wring the requisite ambiguity and threat from the word "Party". The second overt hommage was Phil Wilmott's Act IV, which was a resetting of Uncle Vanya. And although there simply wasn't time to get it in full colour, the Chekhovian mood of disconsolate lassitude was spot on. The Russian gentry are transformed into a political dynasty on its uppers, sitting amidst the remains of the night's takeaway feast.

Just as in politics, women tended to be sidelined in these plays, with the notable exception of Megan Ford's Human Interest, which took this very marginalisation as its theme. A light gloss on the political WAGs, with cursory name changes (Brown to White; Sam Cam to Shabo), it was also the vehicle for the performance of the night. Sian Robins-Grace pulled off an inspired turn as a self-seeking TV presenter, and brought the house down as she leered, simpered and winked at the camera, all pertness and no pertinence.

The other short that I thought worked well was Anders Lustgarten's Bang Up, which dealt with the definitively disenfranchised -- prisoners -- on election night. A black crack-dealer's perception of himself as a true Tory (pays no tax, is self-reliant) was first class mischief. However, the final moments, when the Afghan prisoner is deported, slightly over-stretched this neat, diagrammatic piece. The final show, Che Walker's Two Thousand and Twelve, seemed to be pulled in many directions, from Greek mythology to post-Afghanistan stress, via a bleak dystopian near-future. Despite its eye wateringly brutal language of "single slut mums" and "cage fighter daddies", it never really rose off the page.

So a patchy but passionate evening, during whiche not every word counted. Just like the election, then.

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A third runway at Heathrow will disproportionately benefit the super rich

The mean income of leisure passengers at Heathrow in 2014 was £61,000.

The story goes that expanding Heathrow is a clear-cut policy decision, essential for international trade, jobs and growth. The disruption for those that live around the airport can be mitigated, but ultimately must be suffered for the greater good.

But almost every part of this story is misleading or false. Far from guaranteeing post-Brexit prosperity, a new runway will primarily benefit wealthy frequent flyers taking multiple holidays every year, with local residents and taxpayers picking up the tab.

Expanding Heathrow is not about boosting international trade. The UK is only marginally reliant on air freight to trade with the rest of the world. Total air freight traffic in the UK is actually lower now than it was in 1995, and most UK trade is with Europe, of which only 0.1 per cent goes by air. Internationally, as much as 90 per cent of trade in goods goes by ship because transporting by plane is far too expensive. And in any case our most successful exports are in services, which don’t require transportation. So the idea that UK plc simply cannot trade without an expansion at Heathrow is a gross exaggeration.

Any talk of wider economic benefits is also highly dubious. The Department for Transport’s forecasts show that the great majority of growth in flights will come from leisure passengers. Our tourism deficit is already gaping, with more money pouring out of the country from holidaymakers than comes in from foreign tourists. What’s worse is that this deficit worsens regional disparities since money gets sucked out of all parts of the country but foreign tourists mostly pour money back into London. As for jobs, government estimates suggest that investing in rail would create more employment.

As for the public purse, the aviation sector is undeniably bad for our Treasury. Flights are currently exempt from VAT and fuel duty – a tax subsidy worth as much as £10bn. If these exemptions were removed each return flight would be about £100 more expensive. This is a wasteful and regressive situation that not only forfeits badly needed public funds but also stimulates the demand for flights even further. Heathrow expansion itself will directly lead to significant new public sector costs, including the cost of upgrading Heathrow’s connecting infrastructure, increased pressure on the NHS from pollution-related disease, and the time and money that will have to be ploughed into a decade of legal battles.

So you have to wonder: where is this greater public good that local residents are asked to make such a sacrifice for?

And we must not forget the other sacrifice we’re making: commitment to our fair share of global climate change mitigation. Building more runways creates more flights, just as building more roads has been found to increase traffic. With no clean alternatives to flying, the only way to meet our climate targets is to do less of it.

The real reason for expanding Heathrow is to cater for the huge expected increase in leisure flying, which will come from a small and relatively rich part of the population. At present it’s estimated that 70 per cent of flights are taken by 15 per cent of the population; and 57 per cent of us took no flights abroad at all in 2013. The mean income of leisure passengers at Heathrow in 2014 was £61,000, which is nearly three times the UK median income.

This is in stark contrast to the communities that live directly around airports that are constantly subjected to dirty air and noise pollution. In the case of London City Airport, Newham – already one of London’s most deprived boroughs – suffers air and noise pollution in return for few local jobs, while its benefits are felt almost entirely by wealthy business travellers.

Something needs to change. At the New Economics Foundation we’re arguing for a frequent flyer levy that would give each person one tax-free return flight every year. After that it would introduce a charge that gets bigger with each extra flight, cracking down on those that use their wealth to abuse the system by taking many flights every year. This is based on a simple principle: those who fly more should pay more.

A frequent flyer levy would open up the benefits of air travel, reducing costs for those struggling to afford one family holiday a year, while allowing us to meet our climate targets and eliminate the need for any new runways. It would also generate millions for the public purse in an efficient and progressive way.

We have to take back control over an airports system that is riding roughshod over communities and our environment, with little perceivable benefit except for a small group of frequent flyers.

Stephen Devlin is a senior economist at the New Economics Foundation.