Confessions of a Political Animal

October 29, 2008

In praise of people who don’t agree with me

Has near-unanimity damaged the case against Heathrow extension?

Has near-unanimity damaged the case against Heathrow extension?

Waiting for my train at Charing Cross last night, I was flicking through a magazine in the WHSmiths reading room outlet. A columnist making the case against a third runway at Heathrow had written a piece reeling off the political opposition to the scheme. This included

Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who whatever you may think of him commands several million votes [sic], many times more than any Member of Parliament and a sizable chunk of the British electorate, is opposed to the third runway[.]

Indeed he is, although his opposition seems to rest more on the inconvenience that extra flights will cause to Conservative-voting West Londoners than to any commitment to cutting air travel or emissions: see the approval of increased flights from City Airport or the Heathrow-on-Sea plans as examples.

But, I thought, surely you are understating the case – in the Mayoral elections it certainly wasn’t just Johnson who was against the expansion of Heathrow. Without doing a full search through every candidate’s manifesto – especially as some of them don’t seem to have been kept available online, Boris – the Votematchwebsite for the Mayoral elections gives a quick rundown of the various candidates’ positions. In response to the statement “The capacity of London’s airports should be increased”, the website marks all but three candidates down as disagreeing with it. The three in question are UKIP’s Gerald Batten, who supported expansion, the Christian People’s Alliance’s Alan Craig, who took no position, and Boris Johnson himself, whose support for a new Kent airport gained him a ‘neither agree nor disagree’ tag. However, as we are talking specifically about Heathrow here, we can add him to the ‘disagree’ column. Indeed, the four major candidates for Mayor appeared in joint posters against the third runway.

Therefore, we can safely say that in May 2008 2,354,287 Londoners voted for candidates opposed to Heathrow expansion – 97.4% of all votes cast. And therein, I think, lies a problem. As the Heathrow issue rears its head again as a number of Labour MPs become, quite rightly, increasingly vociferous in their opposition to the third runway – see this EDM tabled by the generally excellent Selby Labour MP John Grogan – then it would be very helpful if the number of votes cast against the proposals in May could be quoted. But if you tried suggesting that less than 3% of Londoners supported a third runway you would, quite correctly, be laughed out of court. But because of the near-unanimity on the subject amongst the mayoral candidates, Heathrow became a second-order issue, replaced as a focus for debate by such crucial issues as what type of bus should run on 9 of London’s 700+ routes.

And because there was no disagreement on Heathrow, there was also no debate, surely an unfortunate situation when the subject at hand was the future of one of the capital’s key pieces of infrastructure, and where public opinion across London as a whole is finely balanced. But with no serious outlet for pro-Heathrow votes to go to, the airport cannot be considered an issue that drove votes in any significant way. And that is very unfortunate, in part for those on the pro side of the argument, but I think, paradoxically, more so for those against it. Near unanimity meant there is no credible vote for candidates against the extension to quote; no opportunity during the election campaign to raise the numerous misrepresentations and part-truths in the BAA and the Department for Transport’s case for the third runway; no significant opportunity to convert those members of the public currently sitting on the fence.

Perhaps even more importantly, there was no opportunity to tease out the subtleties of the various candidates and parties’ positions – because this plays into the broader issue of airport capacity expansion, which isn’t as cut and dried as simply a yes/no response on Heathrow’s third runway – as the post-election Boris experience has shown. Livingstone, for example, took the view that post-Crossrail, City Airport should be closed; Johnson disagreed – but because Heathrow was ‘off the table’ this never really entered the public consciousness.

How should this have been resolved? I will happily admit that I have absolutly no idea. You couldn’t really expect one of the major candidates to ‘take one for the team’ and suddenly switch their position to being pro a third runway simply to improve the standard of debate.

Of course, Heathrow is simply an example of a wider potential problem. I wouldn’t normally quote Peter Lilley on this blog, but speaking yesterday in the Commons on climate change he said

Historically, the House has made its worst mistakes not when it is divided, but when it is virtually unanimous; not when it is adversarial, but when MPs switch off their critical faculties in a spasm of moral self-congratulation.

Given that Lilley was speaking in opposition to the welcomely beefed-up Climate Change Bill, I disagree with his motivations, but take the point he is making stands. Unanimity is a potentially dangerous thing in stifling debate, but it is just as dangerous for those in support as it is for those against the subject in question.

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