The mess Labour have found themselves in over Heathrow is about much more than the decision over airport expansion. It exposes the paper-thin commitment of many in the party, and many elsewhere, to tackling air pollution and climate change, and the work still required to drag them into the 21st century.
There has been a relatively robust consensus against expanding Heathrow airport in City Hall for a decade. No mainstream mayoral candidate has ever stood on a platform of expansion, and politicians from all four main parties have chaired Assembly meetings and committees opposing expansion for a variety of environmental, economic, public health and transport reasons.
But yesterday, those who have quietly dissented from this consensus broke ranks, throwing the official position of their parties into disarray.
The line from Labour on the London Assembly is now that they need to study Davies’ work and don’t want to jump to conclusions. This mirrors the line taken by Tessa Jowell, and avoids taking sides between anti candidates like Sadiq Khan and pro candidates like David Lammy.
But they were quick to condemn the government’s new proposals for Right to Buy on housing association homes, even though the government hasn’t even published its detailed proposals for this manifesto pledge yet. Labour are right to oppose it, because we know enough to see that it will be a disaster.
So it is with Heathrow. After a decade of detailed scrutiny of various Heathrow proposals, we can say with confidence that none of the headline measures offered by Davies today meet the fundamental objections that Labour Assembly Members have signed up to in the past.
For example, legal commitments on air pollution cannot be met with an expanded airport, and noise will increase by 50 per cent for the local population. What’s holding them back from opposing this other than internal politics?
The other excuse used by those who have loudly backed the Davies proposals, including David Lammy and Gareth Thomas, is that expansion can be squared with all of the public health and environmental concerns.
To swallow that claim you must either be credulous to the point of naivety, or – at heart – unconcerned about air pollution and climate change.
Elsewhere, leading Conservative figures reiterated their opposition to Heathrow expansion, but suggested expansion elsewhere was both necessary (despite evidence to the contrary published by the London Assembly) and could take place at Gatwick or an entirely new airport. But while this may lessen the air pollution and noise concerns, it still fails the climate change test.
To swallow any claim about squaring climate change with airport expansion, Davies shows that you need to believe that every possible step will be taken to reduce carbon emissions elsewhere in London to achieve even greater reductions than current planned. You must believe this in spite of the current Mayor being awarded the miserable score of 4 out of 10 for efforts to date.
You must also trust that a future government will introduce a tax on flights equivalent to £100 on the cost of a flight to Ibiza to reduce demand in order to meet our climate change commitments, and ignore repeated examples of British governments of all political colours bottling it on fuel duty and aviation taxes.
It would be like swallowing the Government’s suggestion that Right-to-Buy homes will be replaced like-for-like. It’s theoretically possible, but all the evidence points the other way. Those who – at heart – really don’t care for social housing pretend otherwise.
In recent years the London Assembly has heard that climate change is the greatest threat to jobs and economic prosperity, and that air pollution is a greater public health emergency than obesity. Sadly, it seems the implications of this work still hasn’t fundamentally changed the approach taken by many leading politicians in London.
It has been said that this upcoming Mayoral election could easily become a referendum on Heathrow expansion. It should equally be a referendum on climate change and air pollution, with a choice between those stuck in denial and those who see the need for a very different strategy for a prosperous, healthy and sustainable London.