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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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide