Miliband should U-turn on a third runway before the coalition does

The Labour leader is missing a political opportunity.

There is more consensus in Britain’s economic policy debate than either Labour or the Tories like to admit. As my colleague George Eaton notes here, the Chancellor has discreetly embraced the Keynesian proposition that public spending on infrastructure (albeit hidden from the national balance sheet via loan guarantees) is needed to spur growth. Labour, meanwhile, are formally committed to a version of fiscal austerity – spending cuts and tax rises – over the long-term, only not at the same breakneck speed as the government.

There is also an emerging consensus that the UK needs a state-sponsored infrastructure upgrade as part of a strategic plan to boost international competitiveness. What that might mean in practice is less certain. One project that always comes up in the discussion is the expansion of airport capacity, which generally includes the idea of building a third runway at Heathrow. It is a project for which business leaders routinely clamour. The last Labour government gave its approval; the incoming coalition – honouring pledges made in opposition – killed the idea. Many Tories are now repenting that decision.

A coalition "aviation strategy review" which would consider reviving the Heathrow expansion has been delayed until the end of the year, largely because the Transport Secretary, Justine Greening is famously hostile to a third runway. Her Putney constituents don’t fancy having any more Jumbos booming over head. That problem might have been foreseen and some Tory MPs mutter that David Cameron ought to have thought of the potential conflict of interest when appointing Greening to the Transport portfolio. That he didn’t, say the Tory grumblers, is evidence of his cavalier attitude to appointments. (In the next sentence they usually point to the promotion of Chloe Smith to the job of economic secretary to the Treasury – a role sneerily said to have been given as part of a campaign of positive discrimination in favour of young women to rebalance the appearance of the Tory front bench away from older men.)

Greening’s opposition to a third runway at Heathrow is also said to have damaged her once close relations with the Chancellor, who is desperate for any ready measure that will noisily advertise his commitment to growth. Runway expansion has solid support among Tory MPs. A recent pamphlet by the Free Enterprise Group, a fiercely pro-business faction of Conservatives mostly from 2010 intake, called for not one new runway but two. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, remain opposed. Cancelling the third runway was an explicit commitment in the coalition agreement.

Significantly, that promise was contained in the section headed “Energy and Climate Change”. Opposition to aviation has traditionally been bundled up with arguments about the urgency to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint. Rightly or wrongly, the green agenda has now been well and truly trumped by craving for economic growth (and it was never that prominent among voters’ concerns). In political terms, the case against Heathrow expansion is getting harder to make.

There are members of the shadow cabinet who think Labour should swing behind the idea. It was, after all, their plan in the first place. But Ed Miliband, as former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, is known to have been squeamish about the policy in government. In the race to be Labour leader he claimed to have considered resigning over the matter. Backing a third runway now would be a very personal U-turn.

That might well be a risk worth taking. Labour’s line at the moment is to offer constructive engagement with the government to help develop an aviation strategy – recognising the need to expand capacity and ready to consider all options. A third runway at Heathrow is not ruled out but the party is unwilling to go into specifics. Yet.

There is a political opportunity being missed here. Backing Heathrow expansion would show a capability to take specific policy decisions – and not altogether easy ones – instead of loitering behind well-intentioned, vague pieties. It would also sow a bit of discord in the government ranks, which is what the opposition likes to do. The point about the need for more airport capacity has effectively been conceded, so the environmental argument is much diminished. Ultimately reducing the UK's carbon footprint will be as much a question of cleaner planes as fewer flights. Eventually, the government will U-turn on the third runway. Miliband would be smart to get in there first.

British Airways aircraft at Heathrow's Terminal 5. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Martin Whitfield
Show Hide image

Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496