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

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.