Is the airplane going the way of the 4x4?

Is it just me, or does it look like people are flying less and less?

I have just got back from a few days in Cornwall (via train of course) and I think I have spotted something strange happening.

No, not that half of England is disappearing under water. In fact I missed the bad weather completely, being in St Ives, which was practically the only place with sun this weekend. Instead what I have noticed is that everyone around me seems to have decided not to fly this year.

It started when I persuaded one of my sisters, with her family and our dad, to come for a week in the Lake District earlier this year. My sister immediately re-booked the same farmhouse for next year, and is now taking her summer holiday not in Spain as usual, but in Essex – on the island where we used to spend all our holidays as children.

Also, my friends from college are staying on the ground this summer, having been proper long-haul Larries in recent years (mainly on visits rather casual tourism, but still a lot of globe-trotting). They are currently in the south of France, and have gone by high-speed train.

Even my dad, who seemed to be turning into Alan Whicker as he worked less and became more retired, isn’t crossing the Atlantic this year and is also in Essex. And my mum, who is also retiring this year, has just bought a camper van; I can’t think of a clearer signal of intent not to get on a plane in the near future.

This is not anything like a scientific sample, but I would guess that my immediate circle is this year taking approximately a dozen fewer return flights than they would have done a few years ago. Could it be that flying is suddenly not cool?

There’s more evidence than mine to suggest that our collective love affair with queues, delays, uncomfortable seats and several hours spent in the air in a state of severe anxiety (actually that last one might just be me) is coming to an end.

The Independent last week printed a guide to the UK’s best beaches, which was peppered with words like ‘sensational’, ‘spectacular’ and ‘magnificent’. I loved this; our incredible geology here at home, exemplified by our coastline, is something I have been going on about for ages.

And despite all the obvious benefits of having a huge international airport on your doorstep, local opposition to more aviation is hotting up, too. Warwick Council has just rejected the expansion of Coventry airport, and Manchester airport’s plans to expand onto the green belt were this month squashed by planning inspectors after the airport appealed a decision of Macclesfield Borough Council.

Is this theory of mine just wishful thinking? I need more evidence to back up my observations and hypothesis, but, if I am right, we may be about to send the city break and cheap-flight-stag-night the way of the 4x4. If you have any other evidence of this trend (or counter-evidence) please let me know.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.