Airports quiet as the Olympics keeps visitors away

200,000 fewer people flew into London in July than last year.

The thought of welcoming an influx of 300,000 or so visitors made even the least cynical Londoner wretch in anticipation. While optimists reveled in the thought of subletting their flats to American tourists, others slowly got used to the idea that tubes, trains, and pavements would be teeming with people who walk far too slowly.

And the London pace did slow. But not for the expected reasons. Statistics released by BAA (the company that owns most British airports) show that 4.1 per cent fewer passengers year-on-year made their way to Great Britain this July. Although Heathrow welcomed a record-breaking 236,955 passengers on the first day of the Games, there were roughly 200,000 less passengers in July 2012 relative to 2011. In particular, the airport noted a 6.6 per cent annual decrease in European traffic, even as North Atlantic traffic remained virtually unchanged. Stansted, Glasgow and Southampton experienced similar trends.

BAA’s statistics confirm anecdotal reports of London as a "ghost town". According to the Huffington Post, the city’s main attractions drew less crowds than before:

Bernard Donoghue, chief executive of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, which represents venues ranging from London Zoo to St Paul's Cathedral, said visitor numbers were down by between 30% and 35%.

Donoghue argues that the reason for the drop is two-fold. Firstly, Londoners – obeying Mayor Boris – avoided the prophesied anarchy that would clot circulation within the capital. Secondly, non-Olympic foreign visitors were likely put off by fears of hotel overcrowding and general pandemonium.

In short, not only were there less visitors, but those that braved London went to Wimbledon rather than Wicked.

However, reports of record-breaking public transportation use somewhat contradict the aforementioned claims. On the 3rd of August, the Mayor announced that a record 4.4 million passengers used the Underground in one day. TFL further refuted claims of empty theatres with the fact that the West End’s stations saw a passenger increase of 27 per cent relative to 2011 on the 3rd of August. Moreover, Boris hailed the short-term economic success of the Olympics by boasting that eight out of every ten hotel rooms were full – an occupancy rate that far exceeded that of Beijing or Sydney.

Jeremy Hunt added to this optimism by claiming that consumption has risen with the Games, quoting Visa statistics showing that:

London spend in restaurants is up nearly 20% on a year ago, nightclub spending is up 24%, and spending on theatre and other tickets has doubled.

While it is too early to gauge whether Boris and Hunt have cherry-picked statistics (anecdotes of small shop owners would certainly support this), it remains less clear whether the Olympics will “turbo-charge our tourism industry”. London is neither Beijing nor Syndey, and certainly doesn’t need expensive PR gimmicks. Or maybe that’s just the newly instilled pride talking.

Planes leave Heathrow, but fewer people were on them this summer. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Leader: Labour and the Brexit debacle

The party appears to favour having its cake and eating it – yet the dilemma is not insuperable.

In the year since a narrow majority of people voted to leave the European Union, the Brexit project has not aged well. Theresa May’s appeal to the electorate to “strengthen” her hand in negotiations was humiliatingly rejected in the general election. Having repeatedly warned of a “coalition of chaos” encompassing ­Labour and the Scottish National Party, the Prime Minister has been forced to strike a panicked parliamentary deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. European leaders have been left bewildered by events in the United Kingdom.

The Brexiteers, who won the referendum on a fraudulent prospectus, have struggled to cope with the burden of responsibility. In the manner of Dr Pangloss, they maintain that the UK will flourish outside the EU and that those who suggest otherwise are too pessimistic, or even unpatriotic. Yet wishful thinking is not a strategy. Though the immediate recession forecast by the Treasury has been avoided, the cost of Brexit is already being borne in squeezed living standards (owing to the pound’s depreciation) and delayed investment decisions.

At the same time, far from disintegrating as the most ardent Leavers predicted, the EU is recovering, with a revival of the Franco-German axis under Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. Donald Trump’s antics have dispelled the illusion that “the Anglosphere” can function as an alternative to the bloc. Britain has embarked on the great task of withdrawal at a time of profound national and global instability.

For all this, the Brexiteers retain an indisputable mandate. What the Brexiteers have no mandate for is their model of withdrawal. And there is a nascent majority in the House of Commons for a “soft” exit. Roughly two-thirds of voters remain supportive of Brexit but they have no desire to harm the economy in the process. A recent YouGov survey found that 58 per cent believe Britain should trade freely with the EU, even at the cost of continued free movement into Britain.

In these circumstances, Labour has profited from ambiguity. Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to uphold the referendum result and to end free movement won the respect of Leavers in the election. His pro-migration rhetoric and promise of a “jobs-first” Brexit impressed Remainers, who were in the mood to give the Tories a bloody nose. Although Labour fell 64 seats short of a majority, it partly spanned a divide that had been considered unbridgeable.

Mr Corbyn’s desire to avoid the cross-party Brexit commission proposed by some commentators and MPs is understandable. As Ed Smith observes on page 22, Brexit is a metaphorical “plague” that contaminates all those who touch it, claiming one Conservative prime minister and fatally infecting another. The Tories, who inflicted an unnecessary EU referendum on the UK, must not redistribute the blame.

As the Brexit negotiations progress, however, Labour cannot maintain its opacity. While vowing to retain “the benefits of the single market and the customs union”, it has also pledged to “end” freedom of movement. Like the risible ­Boris Johnson, Labour appears to favour having its cake and eating it. Yet the dilemma is not insuperable.

The logical extension of the party’s vow to give the economy priority over immigration control is to support continued single-market membership. This is the most practical and reliable means of ensuring that Britain’s dominant services sector retains the access it requires. Membership of the customs union would ensure the same for manufacturers. Economic retreat from the EU, which accounts for 44 per cent of all UK exports, would unavoidably reduce growth and living standards.

Such an arrangement need not entail continued free movement, however. Under existing EU rules (not applied by the UK), immigrants resident for longer than three months must prove that they are working (employed or self-employed) or a registered student, or have “sufficient resources” to support themselves and not be “a burden on the benefits system”.

It falls to Labour, as a reinvigorated and increasingly popular opposition, to chart an alternative to the ideological Brexiteers on the Tory benches as well as in the virulent right-wing press. Is Mr Corbyn a covert Brexiteer? It does not really matter. What matters is that he leads a party of committed Europeans who have no wish to see Britain humiliated, its influence in the world reduced, and its economy damaged by the folly of the Brexit debacle. 

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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