The airport expansion plan seems to have flown over the Mayor of London's head. Photo: Getty
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Boris Island plans are rejected, but is this really a blow for the Mayor?

A proposal to build a new airport in the Thames Estuary is to be rejected in an apparent blow to the Mayor of London. But could it help him?

The BBC is reporting that the plan for airport capacity expansion in Britain – building a new island airport in the Thames estuary – is to be rejected by Howard Davies’ Airport Commission. It is thought to be “too risky” and the “logistical challenges” are too great.

The Thames estuary option is known as “Boris Island”, because it is the pet plan of the Mayor of London, who has been backing such a proposal throughout the highly politicised debate about the state of Britain’s aviation and airport capacity. The debate is tied up with opposition to building a third runway at Heathrow, which is thought by many now to be the preferred option of the Commission, and for which the CBI has effectively come out in support, saying a single, larger-hub airport was “critical”.

So what does this mean for the Mayor of London? His aviation adviser, Daniel Moylan, has stated:

"Airports policy has been stalled for nearly five decades, ricocheting like a billiard ball between Heathrow and Gatwick…

"We have only one opportunity to break out of that but it seems the Commission has taken us back to the same old failed choice."

Johnson himself has written in the Telegraph that, although his support for “Boris Island” meant backing the single-hub option, a category which Heathrow also falls under, he still will not be supporting the expansion of Europe’s busiest airport:

There is no government in the Western world that would even contemplate an act so self-defeating, so short-termist, and so barbarically contemptuous of the rights of the population. That is why all three main parties have correctly ruled out expansion of Heathrow airport, in the form of a third runway.

So it is mystifying and depressing to learn that some in Whitehall want to use the cover provided by Sir Howard Davies to effect a colossal U-turn: by announcing that this option is back on the agenda – for consideration post May 2015.

The fundamental problem with Heathrow is that it is situated in the western suburbs, so that unlike any other major hub airport it requires planes to land by flying over the heart of the city. The answer is not to keep compounding the mistake, but to look at a new site.

Johnson has been on a roll over the summer, announcing his intention to stand as an MP in 2015, and choosing his prospective seat, Uxbridge and South Ruislip. However, if the possibility of championing the Thames estuary option is now out of the window, perhaps it gives Johnson a chance to distance himself from the airport expansion debate, therefore saving him from bashing one of the main employers of his potential west London constituents.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Trade unions must adapt to the gig economy in order to survive

We can’t allow the story of UK trade unionism to just be about managing decline.

While the world around trade unions has rapidly changed, there is an impression trade unions have remained stuck in the past with antagonistic rhetoric, outdated governance structures and an inflexible approach. Yet trade unions remain as vital as ever in an insecure jobs market, and do have the capacity to protect workers and inspire support when they use positivity in place of hostility.

The future of the UK trade union movement has long been a matter for concern. Trade union membership has been stagnating for the last 30 years and structural changes in the UK economy have led to trade union density in the private sector dropping below 14 per cent. 

The most worrying aspect of this decline is that – despite work being increasingly less secure, growing wage inequality, and workers’ rights being slowly rolled back since 2010 – trade unions, or more precisely trade union membership, appears not to be a relevant choice for millions of workers.

Polling suggests that too many people who would be interested in being a member of an organisation that offered independent advice and protection at work are put off by the tone of voice and confrontational language they hear from union leaders, usually only during an industrial dispute or power struggle within the Labour party. If unions used to be angry, now they’re furious, and it is not helping.

Trade unions face serious challenges, but if we adapt, we can survive. The rise of self-employment, freelancing and the "gig economy" means more and more people are in need of the services and support that unions offer. But our benefits and services must be responsive to the needs of workers today and be flexible enough for change when it comes. 

We do not talk openly enough about our successes. We shouldn’t be embarrassed when we make something happen whilst working in partnership with decent employers. Nor should we shy away from championing successes achieved through industrial strength, but we need to be more sensitive to how we frame this to a wider audience.

But tweaks to our messaging and services are not enough on their own. We also need structural change in our trade union movement to ensure our long-term success.

Firstly, we need to recognise the severity of the situation that we are in and face up to the facts of declining membership, relevance and authority. There needs to be an acceptance that it is the responsibility of the trade union movement to understand the problems we face and to address them – not to blame others such as the press, politicians or employers.
 
Secondly, we need to build a consensus across the trade union movement on a recovery strategy. Given the diverse interests of our many sister organisations, that is easier to say than to deliver on. Strengthening the governance of trade unions should be one priority, seeking to develop a tripartite social framework with employers and government should be another.
 
Thirdly, we need to ensure the continuing and increasing relevance of trade unions to the world of work. We must recognise that we are struggling to connect beyond our membership and in many cases even beyond our activist base.

Too often change is done to trade unions, rather than by them. The Trade Union Act is the most recent example of a Conservative government taking action to reduce trade union influence. It won’t be long before they return to this pursuit. So rather than waiting to respond, why don’t we take the initiative?

It shouldn't be beyond the collective wit of trade unions to seek to develop and modernise our own structures, develop ideas that would underpin our future independence and seek out best practice across the movement in the delivery of services and benefits.
 
These are undoubtedly big challenges for the trade union movement. I know we want to help build a fairer, more equitable society with decent jobs, housing and education. Wanting to do these things isn’t enough, we need to be in a position to make change happen.

John Park is assistant general secretary of the trade union Community. This blog is based on a chapter he wrote for the book Changing Work: Progressive ideas for the modern world of work, published this week. Changing Work is the first publication from the Changing Work Centre, an initiative from the Fabian Society and Community which is chaired by Yvette Cooper MP.