Quelle surprise, Jeremy Corbyn has come out against a third runway at Heathrow. The Labour leadership favourite has indicated in an interview with the FT that under him, the party would not support expansion at Heathrow:
‘I think the third runway is a problem for noise pollution and so on across west London…I also think there is an under-usage of the other airports around London. I’d vote against it in this parliament.’
Assuming that the bookies and pollsters are correct and Corbyn is elected leader on September 12, this would represent a U-turn from the party’s current stance. Following the release the Airports Commission’s report in July, Labour's shadow transport secretary Michael Dugher said the party would back the proposals, under the right conditions:
‘We will scrutinise the Airports Commission’s final report carefully. If the recommendation can meet a number of tests, including consistency with our climate change obligations, we will take a swift decision to back Sir Howard Davies’ proposals.’
Corbyn's U-turn will have an impact on the London mayoral race. The Labour candidates are split on the issue of airport expansion: Tessa Jowell and David Lammy are pro-Heathrow, while Sadiq Khan and Christian Wolmar are against. Jowell, who remains the favourite to win the nomination, would find herself at odds with her party’s leadership on Heathrow. There are also plenty of moderates in the party who would also rebel against Corbyn.
Khan, like Corbyn, is not from the Blairite wing of the party and is well posted to pickup on the Corbynmania — how many of the new thousands of new members will be backing arch Blairite Jowell? At Corbyn’s rally in Islington last week, his team were out in force to distribute leaflets to those queuing for entry. Judging by the response of those present though, he has a way to go to convince these people.
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But airports are purely a lobbying issue for mayoral candidates — they have no actual power over the decision. Heathrow will be a central issue in the 2016 race and if Labour selects a candidate who is pro-expansion to go up against Zac Goldsmith, you can be certain that the Tories will maximise the opportunity and turn the election into a referendum on a third runway. And Labour will find itself split on the issue all over again.
When Heathrow will come to ahead is uncertain. Decisions still need to be taken before the end of this year on which solution the government will back and how it will consult MPs. Coffee House understands that the government has yet to decide whether it will back a sole Heathrow expansion or involve Gatwick, and whether there'll be a Commons vote.
There remains a possibility that the House will have its say in some form, but as the Times reported in July, a free vote looks unlikely. Building a third runway doesn't strictly require approval from the Commons as it won't be using public funds. Given the passionate views within all the parties, some debate on the matter will be expected and justified.