An airport U-turn could cost the coalition

Green activists and Middle England would unite against a new runway at any airport.

"The road to economic recovery isn't a road - it's a flight path." That's the message currently plastered all over the London underground, courtesy of Heathrow owners BAA.

The company's new campaign to reopen the third runway debate is a self-serving effort to play on people's economic anxieties at a time of fear, that much is obvious. But more than that, it's a con - both politically unrealistic and, more importantly, economically incoherent.

After all, even if David Cameron and Nick Clegg performed the mother of all U-turns and reneged on their totemic commitment not to pave over west London, there wouldn't be planes taking off from a new runway for at least a decade. And so it seems that BAA and its supporters have staked out territory for themselves as the most pessimistic of sages when it comes to when this country will bounce back from its economic malaise. They're putting the date of recovery at some point in the 2020s.

Despite their breathless and exaggerated claims about the supposed economic need for expansion at Heathrow, even the former Chief Executive of British Airways, Bob Ayling, has written (£), "A third runway at Heathrow is against Britain's economic interests." Equally, a report from the respected economic consultancy CE Delft looked at the business case BAA made for the runway and found it wanting. So did the Economist magazine, which opposed the plan for the same hardheaded economic reasons.

Even Cameron, before the election, accused Gordon Brown of "faking" the economic case for the runway. He also said, "What business needs to recognise is that the third runway is just not going to happen... There is such a coalition of forces against it. There's such an environmental case against."

Indeed, the arguments over Heathrow expansion remain fundamentally unchanged. As recently as last year, the global property consultants Cushman & Wakefield found that "London is still ranked -- by some distance from its closest competitors -- as the leading city in which to do business" and also concluded it has the best international transport links of any city in the world. And as Chris Goodall points out, BAA are not dealing with the uncomfortable fact that flying for business purposes is down about 25 per cent since the turn of the century. UK residents made 8.9 million business trips abroad by air in 2000 and 6.6m in 2010. Similarly, total passenger numbers in the UK are down over 10 per cent since 2007.

Never mind, it seems, here we go again.

Were "premier league" sums - or visits to his Number Ten Flat - behind the Prime Minister's apparent change of heart? We will likely never know. But according to the front pages of Sunday's Independent and Observer, the cross-party consensus of opposition to Heathrow expansion is breaking down because senior Conservatives led by Cameron and George Osborne are apparently looking to reopen the third runway debate.

Never mind that five major airports already serve London. Or that there are already more flights from Heathrow to China than there are from Paris Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt combined. The aviation industry lobbyists want more, more, more. As Labour's former aviation minister Chris Mullin wrote:

There is a long history of undertakings being given in return for controversial airport expansions which are either quietly forgotten or cynically abandoned once they becoming inconvenient. During my 18 undistinguished months as a minister whose responsibilities included aviation I learned two things. First, that the demands of the aviation industry are insatiable. Second, that successive governments have usually given way to them. Although nowadays the industry pays lip service to the notion of sustainability, its demands are essentially unchanged. It wants more of everything - airports, runways, terminals.

Any attempt to U-turn on the Heathrow runway will face a fierce political backlash. Within 24 hours of the briefings in the Sunday newspapers, London Mayor Boris Johnson - seeking votes in west London where the runway proposals are politically toxic - said, "It will not be built so long as I am Mayor of London." Richmond MP, Zac Goldsmith, said he'd resign and trigger a by-election if David Cameron reneged on his promise. Similarly, it strikes me it would be impossible for rising star Transport Secretary Justine Greening to remain in post given she is most known for her leading role in fighting the runway plans. Certainly her constituents under the flight path would never forgive such a betrayal. Finally, Nick Clegg knows an about-face on this issue would be as totemic as his tuition fees U-turn. He tied himself to the movement against the runway - even planting a protest tree on the land that would be required to build it - and a change in his position on this would be deeply unpopular with his party's rank and file.

Cameron and Osborne too must surely know how damaged their modernisation project would be if they cave in to BAA's lobbyists on this. Today Osborne's office has told the FT there's "no softening on the question of Heathrow" - something reiterated too by Greening's spokesperson. So for now at least, the third runway has not come back from the dead - and as Paul Goodman has commented - it remains unlikely to do so.

But whatever happens on Heathrow, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have already made clear they do want new runway capacity in the South East. That suggests they do plan to U-turn on their coalition agreement commitment not to approve new runways at Gatwick, Stansted or Heathrow. A Lib Dem source signalled to the Telegraph that whilst they're opposed to a new runway at Heathrow, they too are open to expansion somewhere else.

Since aviation remains the fastest growing cause of climate change, and millions of people living under flight paths would be blighted by noise and air pollution, we could yet see seasoned environmentalists once again arm-in-arm with Middle England rising up to stop the aviation juggernaut from destroying the places people love and undermining our efforts to curb global warming.

If this happens, the Chancellor will have created a political nightmare because of his starry-eyed devotion to corporate lobbyists. Sound familiar?

Joss Garman is a senior campaigner at Greenpeace UK. He previously co-founded the Plane Stupid direct action campaign against airport expansion. Follow him on Twitter: @jossgarman

A British Airways aircraft taxis past other parked British Airways aircraft at Terminal 5 of Photograph: Getty Images.

Joss Garman is associate fellow on climate change and energy at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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