Is Labour’s free vote on Heathrow brilliant tactics, or just plain stupid?

The one thing that's certain is it's a big win for Unite.

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Is the Labour party’s strategy for navigating the Heathrow expansion vote stupid or inspired?

The case for it being “stupid” is clear. The party set four tests for expanding Heathrow and it has declared that current plans fail all four: it would increase the United Kingdom’s emissions, has dire consequences for the local environment, that the benefits will not extend outside the south-east of England, and that it will not adequately expand capacity.

Yet Labour has chosen not to oppose expansion, but instead to have a free vote on the issue and urge other parties to follow suit. Free votes tend to be the reserve of finely-balanced and unknowable issues, not ones where, according to a party’s own tests, the case is open-and-shut.

Corbyn himself is a longstanding opponent of expanding Heathrow as is his most influential shadow minister, John McDonnell.

But the gambit is also a way of getting Labour out of a tricky mess. The parliamentary Labour party is divided on the rights and wrongs of airport expansion, though the reality is that very few pro-expansion MPs are committed enough to it to rebel. Most MPs don’t like rebelling, which is one reason for which the number of actual Conservative rebels on Brexit issues has often been small and why far fewer Labour MPs have rebelled on Brexit questions than privately disagree with the leadership’s line. Even some MPs who might commonly be seen as perennial dissidents prefer to do it as little as possible. Jeremy Corbyn, who as a backbencher was among the most rebellious MPs in Labour’s history, never rebelled more than one vote in every four. That gives you an idea of how rare rebellions actually are - even for an unusually disobedient MP.

The problem for Corbyn and Heathrow isn’t in the parliamentary Labour party, but among the trade unions, who are largely but not wholly pro-expansion. (The TSSA, which represents white-collar workers in the rail industry, is opposed for reasons that should be immediately obvious.) Crucially, Unite, the country’s largest trade union and a powerful presence in the Labour leader’s office, are strongly pro. Unite represents a wide range of workers in the aviation industry, from people who make the planes to the cabin crew to the pilots to the people who produce the meals. The third runway at Heathrow is set to create about 10,000 extra jobs, and largely for workers that Unite represents.

But the problem for Heathrow is raising the money from investors to back the third runway – something they will only do if they regard the third runway as politically future-proof. (This is one reason environmental campaigners are still hopeful that they can stop the runway being built.) It’s a big coup for Unite that Labour is not opposing it, and calling for a free vote on the issue allows the Opposition to finesse the U-turn as well as possible.

For Unite’s political team, it’s the end of a great few weeks’ work: it wasn’t inevitable that Labour would reach this position. Unite also represents workers in the fracking industry, another sector that arouses strong opposition from environmentalists in general and Corbyn in particular. On that occasion, Corbyn overruled opposition from within the shadow cabinet and trade union movement.

There are two important differences this time. The first is that because, as I’ve written before, the SNP are backing Heathrow’s expansion, Labour has no hope or prospect of defeating the government. The second is Unite’s support for the leader’s office in a series of internal and external battles, the most costly – in financial terms – being the support Unite gave to LabourLive, the party’s one-day music festival.

Unite faced a lot of criticism for using members’ subs to bail out what many saw as a vanity project. But that they have secured the valuable prize of securing Heathrow expansion even under a Corbyn government is a pretty good return on the investment.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.