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Labour's little wins are not adding up to victory

There are heaps of voters who blame the governing parties for their problems. Not enough of them are looking to Ed Miliband for solutions.

Labour are making gains, which doesn't mean they are winning. Ed Miliband’s party has nearly 300 more council seats than it had on Thursday morning. So progress. But no-one I have spoken to seriously claims these results put the opposition on a safe trajectory towards a general election triumph.

The reason lots of people voted Ukip will be analysed enough over the next few days – and will no doubt give Labour people ample cause to demand the things they were demanding anyway from the leadership, chiefly "boldness", "clarity" and "radicalism". (I have yet to meet an MP who wishes the leader would be more timid, opaque and incremental.)

In terms of Labour’s vote share, with less than a year before a general election, what matters is that not enough people who hate the main incumbent governing party express that feeling as endorsement of the main opposition party. Plenty think the Tories are a problem; too few think Ed Miliband’s Labour party is the solution.

Labour’s beacon of strength is London, where Ukip were less competitive and where there was plenty of low-hanging Lib Dem fruit to be plucked. There are a couple of other explanations around as to why the capital turned red. It is liberal-left and cosmopolitan by inclination, which is the blend of Labour brew that Miliband serves with ease. Also, crucially, the London Labour party has lots of members – it is a healthy part of the organisation and was well-organised.

Where there are more boots on the ground, more doors are knocked on and more support mobilised. Labour’s Get Out the Vote (GOTV) operation is generally reputed to be in good shape and the capital benefited disproportionately. (Manchester too, by some accounts). But that is less encouraging for Miliband than it might be. It suggests gains made in spite of his performances rather than because of them. Some GOTV is mining core support and mobiliing Clegg-hating refugees who have been on board since 2010. Some is communty activism that indicates a bona fide renaissance of grassroots Labour. In neither case does it reflect a broad shift in the national mood towards a change of government, nor is it a sign that Britain's huge standing army of sceptical and disengaged voters is getting the Miliband message.

A fierce argument is already under way behind the scenes about the focus and organisation of the campaign, much of which is displacement activity to avoid confronting the problem of Miliband’s failure as an evangelist. It is true, as some MPs have grumbled, that Labour’s upper echelons were relaxed for too long about Farage because he was doing such sterling work undermining David Cameron and nibbling away at the Tory vote in key marginals. Yet it is also true, as senior figures in the campaign point out, that Labour would hardly have transformed its position in the past fortnight with an abrupt lurch into foam-flecked and transparently panic-induced cynical anti-immigration rhetoric.

The reason the opposition is febrile is not a fear that it is campaigning with the wrong script. There is plenty of policy and, underpinning that, a plausible analysis of the salient issues in the lives of target voters. There really is a cost if living crisis, so it makes sense for the opposition to talk about it. MPs have various reservations about the emphasis and preferences about what needs to be said more and louder. That is inevitable in any campaign. But those reservations are exaggerated because it is easier to complain about the message than it is to confront the issue of an unconvincing messenger.

Miliband’s lack of campaign mojo was a source great comfort to the Tories in the past week. It was remarkable to see how senior Conservatives sustained a buoyant mood while marching towards a poll where they entirely expected to be butchered. The reason is twofold. First, they know that incumbents can be punished in local and European elections and still win general elections within a year. Second, they are starting to see how the whole Farage phenomenon can work to their advantage – or, rather, how it might be contained.

The key is drawing a sense of equivalence between Ukip as the crazy insurgent opposition and Labour as the flaky old spendthrift opposition, with Cameron as the only grown-up in the middle.

We saw the outline of this argument made by the Chancellor in a speech at the CBI last week. To his right, he depicted the forces of rabid anti-European Farageism, determined to pull up the drawbridge against modern civilsation. To his left, he conjured the spectre of Socialist Milibandism, itching to snuff out Britain’s enterprising spirit under a heap of taxes, price controls and clunky regulations. This configuration will be expanded into a wider general election campaign: Ukip and Labour will be presented as peddlers of different brands of snake oil, while Cameron is the only qualified physician in the house with – it will be claimed – a proven record of healing a crisis-stricken economy.

It has potential as a bid for re-election (although Labour strategists naturally insist it will unravel on contact with the reality of how meagre the rewards from a dodgy millionaire-friendly recovery will be for most people). The big problem for the Tories remains matching a theoretical appeal to the many voters who don’t trust Labour to run the economy onto actual constituencies where the arithmetic stacks up in Cameron’s favour.

In that respect, the latest batch of local election results doesn’t offer much inspiration. Not only are Ukip taking votes from the Tories, they are picking up votes of non-Tories and Labour defectors that the Tories need to recruit. Conservatives have sounded firm on immigration and eager for a European referendum, yet people who are receptive to exactly that message in principle, don’t want to hear it from Cameron. Tory MPs privately admit that on the doorstep no-one believes it. The dilemma remains much as it has been for the duration of this parliament. Cameron badly needs the votes of people who respond to Ukip’s agenda but the more his party sounds like Ukip, the less credible becomes its claim to be the sensible force of centre-hugging sound economic stewardship.

In the last week of the campaign, moderate Tories were glad to see Farage put on the spot about his distaste for living in proximity to foreigners in general and Romanians in particular. Much of the research effort feeding media reports of extremist views and far-right flirtations in Ukip’s ranks has come from CCHQ. Downing Street wants Farage to be contaminated with the whiff of disreputable xenophobia, if not outright racism, but also wants it to be someone other than senior Tories saying it.

This is why it is madness for Conservative back benchers to start once again raising the prospect of a pact with Ukip and why cabinet ministers have thoroughly rejected the notion. The No10 strategy is to make Ukip look like a fringe phenomenon – a pressure valve that releases public anger and frustration in local and European polls but is unsuited to the business of serious government. (Judging by recent precedent, it is a safe assumption that somewhere in Farage’s new haul of councillors will be people with appalling comments and sinister pamphlets lurking in their back catalogues and social media profiles.)

Of course, this is all before we know the results of the European elections. Labour nerves will be calmed if Ukip do not top that poll; and rightwing Tory tempers will be all the more stoked if coming third brings no consoling humiliation for Miliband.

But, from what we have seen so far, the local poll appears to confirm what Labour strategists have been saying for years: the four-party arithmetic and the unresolved problems with the Conservative brand make it hard to see where Cameron finds enough seats to form a majority. And Labour’s pedestrian advance outside the capital appears to confirm the Downing Street  analysis, which is that the country is not turning with any enthusiasm to Ed Miliband – and the opposition look low on ammunition. Cameron may not be making obvious gains; that doesn't mean he isn't winning.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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A third runway at Heathrow will disproportionately benefit the super rich

The mean income of leisure passengers at Heathrow in 2014 was £61,000.

The story goes that expanding Heathrow is a clear-cut policy decision, essential for international trade, jobs and growth. The disruption for those that live around the airport can be mitigated, but ultimately must be suffered for the greater good.

But almost every part of this story is misleading or false. Far from guaranteeing post-Brexit prosperity, a new runway will primarily benefit wealthy frequent flyers taking multiple holidays every year, with local residents and taxpayers picking up the tab.

Expanding Heathrow is not about boosting international trade. The UK is only marginally reliant on air freight to trade with the rest of the world. Total air freight traffic in the UK is actually lower now than it was in 1995, and most UK trade is with Europe, of which only 0.1 per cent goes by air. Internationally, as much as 90 per cent of trade in goods goes by ship because transporting by plane is far too expensive. And in any case our most successful exports are in services, which don’t require transportation. So the idea that UK plc simply cannot trade without an expansion at Heathrow is a gross exaggeration.

Any talk of wider economic benefits is also highly dubious. The Department for Transport’s forecasts show that the great majority of growth in flights will come from leisure passengers. Our tourism deficit is already gaping, with more money pouring out of the country from holidaymakers than comes in from foreign tourists. What’s worse is that this deficit worsens regional disparities since money gets sucked out of all parts of the country but foreign tourists mostly pour money back into London. As for jobs, government estimates suggest that investing in rail would create more employment.

As for the public purse, the aviation sector is undeniably bad for our Treasury. Flights are currently exempt from VAT and fuel duty – a tax subsidy worth as much as £10bn. If these exemptions were removed each return flight would be about £100 more expensive. This is a wasteful and regressive situation that not only forfeits badly needed public funds but also stimulates the demand for flights even further. Heathrow expansion itself will directly lead to significant new public sector costs, including the cost of upgrading Heathrow’s connecting infrastructure, increased pressure on the NHS from pollution-related disease, and the time and money that will have to be ploughed into a decade of legal battles.

So you have to wonder: where is this greater public good that local residents are asked to make such a sacrifice for?

And we must not forget the other sacrifice we’re making: commitment to our fair share of global climate change mitigation. Building more runways creates more flights, just as building more roads has been found to increase traffic. With no clean alternatives to flying, the only way to meet our climate targets is to do less of it.

The real reason for expanding Heathrow is to cater for the huge expected increase in leisure flying, which will come from a small and relatively rich part of the population. At present it’s estimated that 70 per cent of flights are taken by 15 per cent of the population; and 57 per cent of us took no flights abroad at all in 2013. The mean income of leisure passengers at Heathrow in 2014 was £61,000, which is nearly three times the UK median income.

This is in stark contrast to the communities that live directly around airports that are constantly subjected to dirty air and noise pollution. In the case of London City Airport, Newham – already one of London’s most deprived boroughs – suffers air and noise pollution in return for few local jobs, while its benefits are felt almost entirely by wealthy business travellers.

Something needs to change. At the New Economics Foundation we’re arguing for a frequent flyer levy that would give each person one tax-free return flight every year. After that it would introduce a charge that gets bigger with each extra flight, cracking down on those that use their wealth to abuse the system by taking many flights every year. This is based on a simple principle: those who fly more should pay more.

A frequent flyer levy would open up the benefits of air travel, reducing costs for those struggling to afford one family holiday a year, while allowing us to meet our climate targets and eliminate the need for any new runways. It would also generate millions for the public purse in an efficient and progressive way.

We have to take back control over an airports system that is riding roughshod over communities and our environment, with little perceivable benefit except for a small group of frequent flyers.

Stephen Devlin is a senior economist at the New Economics Foundation.