Why Labour’s modernisers should back Corbyn’s resistance to Heathrow expansion

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It’s now clear that Labour will oppose Heathrow expansion. Not only did Jeremy Corbyn say during the leadership campaign that he’d vote against it, but his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, is a vocal opponent.

Many Labour modernisers will be alarmed by this stance. In the eyes of many, one of the top reasons for defeat in May was that the party wasn’t trusted with the economy. To win again, Labour must show it won’t undermine growth.

So during the campaign, the leadership candidates most focused on winning votes from the centre presented themselves as able to regain economic credibility. When the Davies Commission recommended expanding Heathrow, Liz Kendall immediately responded by calling for a decision to build the new runway, which quickly became Party policy.

The political calculation was obvious. While the Tories were split and dithering, supporting Heathrow expansion would allow Labour to outflank them as the party of job creation.

The modernisers presumably considered arguments against expansion, particularly from residents who would be hit by worse air pollution and noise. This seems to be Corbyn’s main objection to it. But it’s understandable that candidates aspiring to lead the country prioritised what they saw as a national benefit over a local cost.

What their calculation may not have taken into account – understandably as it was glossed over in the Davies Report and barely featured in the coverage – was whether expansion can be reconciled with the UK’s climate change targets. This is where what may seem like good politics turns out to be not only bad policy but also bad politics.

The UK is committed under the Climate Change Act to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% of 1990 levels by 2050. So far we’ve done a reasonable job: we’re broadly on course and last year emissions fell by 6%.

Plans for meeting the 2050 target are already generous to aviation. While emissions from the rest of the economy are due to be cut by 85% on 1990 levels, aviation’s emissions are allowed to grow by around 120%. All that emissions growth was already used from 1990 to 2005, but the plans allow for an additional increase in passenger numbers of 60%: a leniency that assumes overall aviation emissions can be kept constant as emissions per passenger are reduced with future technological fixes. This expansion will likely be overwhelmingly for leisure travel: business travel represents less than a sixth of international travel in UK airports and has been falling in both relative and absolute terms.

But, unless aviation growth is limited, we will miss even this generous target. According to the Department for Transport, emissions will be well above their target even without airport expansion; a new Heathrow runway puts us still further off course.

When pushed, the Davies Commission offered an eye-watering solution to meet the target. They suggested reducing demand for flights by greatly increasing the price of carbon (as well as other difficult measures). Even if planes become about a third more efficient, the Commission’s case for expanding Heathrow assumes that a London-New York return ticket should cost around £325more than now (the range of prices they suggest vary hugely, with some much higher). The Commission’s scenario is based on optimistic assumptions about future technology, so we’d need even greater, and less realistic, breakthroughs to resolve this dilemma.

So the proposal appears to be to expand Heathrow but to avoid using all of the new capacity by making flying so much more expensive it’ll again become available only to richer travellers.

This means it’s impossible to be in favour of more than two out of three of: building and fully using a new runway, keeping flights affordable for poorer travellers, and meeting our climate targets. If you agree the UK should meet those targets and that foreign holidays should be available to poorer families, the policy argument for expanding Heathrow is challenging. Expanding an airport but not using the capacity is so obviously a waste of money I can only assume the Commission doesn’t really think we should meet our climate targets.

But maybe Labour’s modernisers should forget the quality of the policy and just focus on the politics. After all, climate change policy hardly drives voting behaviour to the extent that economic stewardship does, and it would be the Tories who’d get the blame for building the white elephant. What’s more, being seen to pick a fight with environmental activists might even help Labour win the centre.

But there are two reasons why the politics of opposing Heathrow expansion are better than they might seem.

Firstly, protests against expansion have barely got started and will grow enormously if it’s approved. It won’t just be dreadlocked activists, but – as with the fracking protests – also middle-Englanders who’ll appeal to conservative media. Most people haven’t yet heard the counter-argument to expansion; when they do their opposition will grow. Labour may find that opposing the government’s pro-expansion position could be much more politically profitable.

Secondly, New Labour’s success came from being seen not just as pro-business but also as representing the future against a government that stood for the past. Vocally supporting Heathrow expansion might help Labour tackle perceptions of being anti-business but it does nothing to show it understands and can navigate the future. Voters recognise the coming decades will be difficult and that climate change is a threat. Labour won’t be modernised if it just reaches for solutions from the past that take no account of how the world is changing.

The instinct for Labour’s modernisers to resist their leader and outflank the Tories on airport expansion is understandable. But in reality, a new Heathrow runway can’t be delivered in a way that meets our climate targets and keeps foreign travel in reach of the less well-off. There are much better ways for Labour to invest in the UK’s infrastructure and its people’s skills, which could show that the party is both economically responsible and understands how to lead the country through the challenges ahead.

Leo Barasi writes about public opinion at Noise of the Crowd.

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