With the support of 119 Labour MPs the government got a proposed third runway at Heathrow through the House of Commons on 26 June.
The government cites numerous benefits from expansion — to international trade and new foreign direct investment for example.
Unite and the GMB, the largest unions representing workers at Heathrow, are uncritical backers of the project, citing only the prospect of new jobs as the key factor in assessing whether an infrastructure project is good or bad.
The Transport Select Committee’s report on the proposal stated that the government were unclear on the environmental impact as well as the health and community impacts on the area effected by the expansion.
The government response has been to push these responsibilities onto Heathrow’s owners, who unsurprisingly say they can meet all the necessary targets on air quality, despite already failing in the case of nitrogen levels to do so now!
Although figures are contested, Heathrow is probably the single greatest carbon emitter in the UK. Expansion can only mean this getting worse.
Heathrow is owned and propped up by a huge amount of investment by banks, hedge funds and other private interests. The expansion of Heathrow is about providing increased benefits for these backers and about competing with other major European hubs like Amsterdam Schipol.
The TSC report also concluded that a further 325,000 people would be newly impacted by significant noise pollution, an issue which Heathrow has consistently failed to acknowledge. Current arrangements to deal with this issue have been pitiful.
Labour set out four tests on airport expansion in the south east: meeting the UK’s capacity demands; not breaching noise and air pollution obligations; allowing the UK to meet its climate change targets in their entirety; and supporting growth across the whole country.
Expansion of Heathrow can not meet all of Labour’s modest tests.
Labour’s decision to hold a free vote in the Commons, on an issue where official policy is to oppose, is baffling.
John McDonnell, whose constituency includes Heathrow, has been a long-term and vocal opponent of Heathrow expansion.
Jeremy Corbyn has also long opposed a third runway. Yet somehow they were either unable or unwilling to whip for a vote against the plans, and potentially stop the plans.
McDonnell would doubtless argue that the series of legal challenges that will now be lodged by various London boroughs and neighbouring councils, and anti expansion campaigns will continue to delay the decision until a Labour government can come to power and reverse the proposal. But why not oppose it now?
The vote on Heathrow shows that political cowardice has crept into the thinking of even some of the most principled left wing MPs. Shadow Cabinet members Angela Rayner and Jonathan Ashworth voted in favour of expansion while Ed Miliband, former leader and Environment Secretary under Gordon Brown, voted against.
The confused thinking on issues like this which are key to Labour having an environmental policy that is in any way adequate do not bode well. The jobs-at-any-cost view from some of the major unions must be challenged.
The labour movement including local parties should start to discuss the kind of just transition and sustainable carbon neutral jobs we want to see created by a Labour government.
It would mean utilising the skills of the hundreds of thousands of workers currently in harmful and polluting industry and providing skilled jobs that will benefit rather than destroy the planet.