A spot of Reading then Heathrow

The Green London mayoral candidate reports from Reading and her party's conference plus fighting air

Conference in Reading is remarkably quiet compared with recent Green Party get-togethers, or perhaps it just seems that way after leaving behind the excitement of the London election. The campaign is snowballing now, and the first full hustings took place on Thursday, hosted by the Green Alliance. You can watch the videos and judge for yourself how we all did on Friction.tv.

Away in Reading, we've been enjoying the international flavour of the conference. The 'Global Voices' panel on Friday afternoon saw the Venezuelan Ambassador to the UK, Samuel Moncada discuss global human and environmental rights with Dr Abdullah Abu Hilal from the Palestinian West Bank town of Abu Dis, a Jerusalem suburb on its way to being officially twinned with my home town of Camden. Also on the panel, talking about the ongoing problems with Shell in the Ogoni region of Nigeria, was human rights lawyer Patrick Okonmah.

Meanwhile, back in London, two new reports have been published that finally demolished the government's paper-thin economic case for expansion at Heathrow. Friends of the Earth have released their paper, “Heathrow expansion – its true costs”. This shows the massive faults in how the consultation documents value the impacts of expansion. The report shows that, even if you accept the government’s ethically dubious framework that reduces all the impacts of a new runway to amounts of money, the numbers still don’t add up.

The figure used to calculate the cost of climate change damage isn't the Stern Report’s 'business as usual' figure of £53 per tonne of carbon dioxide, but just £19 - a figure that assumes climate change itself will be minimised thanks to strong policies from the government. FoE calls this 'circular reasoning of the worst kind'. Assuming that expanding an airport does count as 'business as usual', correcting this error almost triples the climate costs from £4.8 billion to more than £14 billion, and wipes out the government's 'net benefit' at a stroke.

The FoE report also finds flaws in calculations of the future cost of flights. In particular, the most ridiculous assumption in the whole consultation – that the price of oil “falls from $64 per barrel in 2006 to $53 per barrel in 2030”. I read this and (after I picked myself up off the floor) went to check the oil price today - it was $95.

The second report, published by consultants CE Delft who were commissioned by campaigners HACAN to look more closely at the figures, is also damning of the government’s economic analysis. They found that gains to business and employment were being similarly inflated by not taking into account the fact that money, if not spent on via the expanded airport, would be spent elsewhere in the local economy.

These studies, exposing the economic con-trick BAA and the government are trying to pull, are important since these supposed benefits are their last positive argument, set against a vast pile of negative consequences of expansion. The population of London are virtually up in arms about the extra noise and air pollution that would result from more flights, and the climate change argument is completely clear – we can’t fight climate change and build more airports, full-stop.

We now have just a few more days until the close of the consultation. Like most such consultations, the questions have been put together in such a way that it’s very difficult to answer them and actually get your opinions across. The campaigners suggest answering all the questions with a simple ‘No’ and I'm urging everyone to do the same before 27th February. See the Stop Heathrow Expansion website for more on what you can do before then, including coming to the big rally in Westminster on 25th February.

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
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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.