Labour denies Heathrow third runway U-turn - but there has been a shift

Having threatened to resign from the last Labour government over the project, Miliband is now merely "sceptical".

Labour is denying that there has been any change in its stance on a third runway at Heathrow after the FT reported that Ed Miliband had "abandoned his implacable opposition". A party source told The Staggers: 

FT suggestion Labour changing position on Heathrow is wrong. Position unchanged. Ed sceptical. We await Davies [Airports Commission]. 

But while the party is some way from endorsing the project, which will be one of those shortlisted by the Airports Commission (chaired by Howard Davies) in its interim report next week, a shift has unmistakably taken place. 

When Miliband won the Labour leadership in 2010, having threatened to resign as Energy Secretary over the issue during the last government, he made it official party policy to oppose a third runway. As then shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle said in 2011: "The answer for the south-east is not going to be to fall back on the proposed third runway at Heathrow. The local environmental impact means that this is off the agenda." Yet now Miliband is merely said to be "sceptical". In the recent reshuffle, Eagle, a strong opponent of a third runway and a strong supporter of HS2, was replaced with Mary Creagh, who has adopted a neutral stance on the Davies Commission. She said recently: "No party can say now that it will implement its recommendations when we simply don't know what the costs of any proposals will be. Obviously the Conservatives and Lib Dems haven't made any such commitments."

This shift is, among other things, a victory for Ed Balls. We know that the shadow chancellor favours a third runway because he's told us. As I noted earlier this year, asked in the "quick fire" section of a Times interview whether he favoured a "third runway or HS2", he replied: "third runway". That Miliband is now willing to consider a third runway shows how the gap between them has narrowed since they were in government together.

As Damian McBride recalled in his memoir: "The first time I ever heard Balls say anything remotely negative about Miliband was at the end of 2008, when the latter effectively threatened to resign from the Cabinet if a decision was made to build a third runway at Heathrow.

"Balls was genuinely outraged that Miliband could ignore the need to expand airport capacity just for the sake of his reputation with the green lobby and his own political positioning."

A protest sign is displayed in the village of Sipson, which would be demolished should a third runway be built at Heathrow Airport. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Scottish Labour's defeat to the Tories confirms a political transformation

The defining divide is no longer between left and right but between unionist and nationalist.

It was Scotland where Labour's recovery was supposed to begin. Jeremy Corbyn's allies predicted that his brand of left-wing, anti-austerity politics would dent the SNP's hegemony. After becoming leader, Corbyn pledged that winning north of the border would be one of his greatest priorities. 

But in the first major elections of his leadership, it has proved to be Labour's greatest failure. A result that was long thought unthinkable has come to pass: the Conservatives have finished second (winning 31 seats). For the first time since the 1910 election, Labour has finished third (winning 24). Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale stood on a left-wing platform, outflanking the SNP on tax (pledging to raise the top rate to 50p and increase the basic rate by 1p), promising to spend more on public services and opposing the renewal of Trident. But rather than advancing, the party merely retreated.

Its fate confirms how Scottish politics has been realigned. The defining divide is no longer between left and right but between unionist and nationalist. With the SNP as the only major pro-independence party, the Tories, led by the pugnacious Ruth Davidson, framed themselves as the pro-UK alternative - and prospered. In contrast, Dugdale refused to rule out supporting a second referendum and suggested that MPs and MSPs would be free to campaign for secession. The result was that Scottish Labour was left looking dangerously irrelevant. "Identity politics. Labour doesn't get it," a shadow minister told me. Its socialist pitch counted for little in a country that remains ideologically closer to England than thought. The SNP has lost its majority (denying it a mandate for a second referendum) - an outcome that the electoral system was always designed to make impossible. But its rule remains unthreatened. 

Corbyn's critics will seek to pin the baleful result on him. "We turned left and followed Jeremy's politics in Scotland, which far from solving our problems, pushed us into third," a senior opponent told me. But others will contend that a still more left-wing leader, such as Neil Findlay, is needed. Dugdale is personally supportive of Trident and was critical of Corbyn before his election. Should she be displaced, the party will be forced to elect its sixth leader in less than five years. But no one is so short-sighted as to believe that one person can revive the party's fortunes. Some Corbyn critics believe that a UK-wide recovery is a precondition of recovery north of the border. At this juncture, they say, SNP defectors would look anew at the party as they contemplate the role that Scottish MPs could play in a Westminster government. But under Corbyn, having become the first opposition to lose local election seats since 1985, it is yet further from power. 

In Scotland, the question now haunting Labour is not merely how it recovers - but whether it ever can. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.