Labour is still pre-occupied with the 1992 defeat of Neil Kinnock. Photo: GERRY PENNY/AFP/Getty Images
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Labour’s past spectres, bringing on the Brexit, and the wisdom of the shoeless guru

Labour’s abiding problem is that it doesn’t think it really belongs in office and must therefore apologise for occasions when it was.

Were the Conservatives still talking in 2000 about 1992, when the Tory chancellor Norman Lamont, in a vain attempt to keep Britain in the Exchange Rate Mechanism (a precursor to the euro), raised interest rates from 10 per cent to 12 per cent and then to 15 per cent and finally back to 10 per cent within barely 24 hours? Not that I recall. Were they talking in 1982 about 1974, when Edward Heath, in an equally vain attempt to see off a miners’ strike, put the country on a three-day working week? I think not.

Yet here is a Labour leadership contest in which the contenders have begun by discussing whether Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling were guilty of overspending before the world financial crisis struck. The party should have buried this argument long ago. Lest we forget, public services were then so popular that the Tories promised to match Labour’s spending plans. And unlike Lamont and Heath, Labour ministers successfully dealt with the crisis that they confronted, not only rescuing British banking from collapse but persuading other countries to take similar action and then ­restoring economic growth by 2010.

It is, however, Labour’s fate always to be reliving the past: the “great betrayal” of 1931, the devaluations of 1949 and 1967, the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent, the 1983 “suicide note”, Liam Byrne’s “no money left” note in 2010. The Tories treat their disasters as mere aberrations. The message of the departing Tory chancellor Reginald Maudling to his Labour successor in 1964 – “Good luck, old cock. Sorry to leave it in such a mess” – was forgotten within a year. To listen to the Tories, you would think that Heath had nothing to do with them. A highly intelligent and politically aware young man once told me that he was 30 before he realised that the three-day week didn’t happen under Labour.

Labour’s abiding problem is that it doesn’t think it really belongs in office and must therefore apologise for occasions when it was. Tony Blair’s ambition was to turn it into the “natural governing party”. The test of that was whether it could bounce back quickly from the defeat it would inevitably suffer eventually. This uninspiring leadership contest, combined with the defeat that prompted it, shows how badly he failed.


Mr Blue Sky

For examples of what prospective Labour leaders should talk about, turn to Steve Hilton. Yes, that Steve Hilton, the shaven-headed, bicycling former provider of “blue-sky thinking” to David Cameron. He ­supported £25bn in welfare cuts and an end to unfair dismissal laws before, frustrated by Whitehall, he fled to California in 2012. Now, in a Sunday Times interview alongside an extract from his new book, More Human, he says: “Our democracies are increasingly captured by a ruling class that seeks to perpetuate its privileges”; governments listen only to those who have money; and it is “outrageous that we should tolerate a situation where people work incredibly hard yet can’t earn enough to live on”. He argues that, in return for a cut in business taxes, companies should pay the living wage. (Why didn’t Labour propose that?) He says that supermarkets and other big companies (he seems to hate Tesco particularly) should pay for the social and environmental damage they cause. He rails against “vast corporate machines that treat people as an afterthought whether they work for them, supply them or buy from them”.

I don’t agree with everything he says or even most of it. But this is the territory that Labour’s prospective leaders should explore.


Dead man’s shoes

Some Labour insiders suggest that the winner of this year’s contest should face a new leadership election in three years’ time. This sounds like a desperate device to insert
David Miliband, the “right” brother but not currently an MP. It occurs to me, however, that, since 1945, Labour has twice changed its leader in the middle of a parliament while in opposition. On both occasions, 1963 and 1994, the incumbent leader died (Hugh Gaitskell and John Smith). In both cases, Labour had performed below pre-poll expectations in the previous election, then went on to win a majority in the next. This little history lesson may be a bit of a downer for current leadership hopefuls but, in these challenging times, we must cling to those straws we can find.


From free trade to free-for-all

I was planning to vote in favour of Britain’s continuing EU membership, as I did (when it wasn’t the EU) in 1975. But I now think that, if Cameron recommends staying in, I shall vote against. With his small majority, he will make a pro-EU case only if he is sure that his Eurosceptic backbenchers won’t rebel. They want a deregulated Europe, in which countries compete to cut wages and taxes, reduce employees’ and consumers’ rights and abolish health, safety and environmental safeguards. That is what they mean by a pure free-trade area with no “interference” from Brussels. If an EU like that is in prospect, we should leave immediately.


Mansions of menace

Released from the terrors of Red Ed’s mansion tax, London’s high-end property market booms again. The Qatari ruling family, it is reported, has snapped up a six-storey Victorian town house in Mayfair for £40m and is close to creating a “Qatari quarter” in the area. As thrilling as it is to welcome such distinguished guests, instead of having Labour spurn them with its inhospitable taxes, I am just a little worried. The press is exercised about Islamist militants possibly being smuggled into Europe on flimsy refugee boats crossing the Mediterranean. But Qatar has been criticised for tolerating jihadist fundraisers and providing support, including weapons, to Middle Eastern militant groups. I am sure that Qatar’s rulers mean us no more harm than do the many genuine refugees trying to reach safety but are we quite sure that there’s no danger of an Islamist terrorist finding a safe haven in some corner of a Mayfair basement? Just asking.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

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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.