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Westminster Watch: Shifting sands

The Labour party’s perspective on Heathrow expansion could change with the outcome of a union election

The month of May marks a year since the general election that spectacularly backfired. One of the major implications for those such as myself who seek to guide our clients’ relations with politics is that Labour became much more important.

All of those interested in the major issues for this sector – airport expansion, surface connectivity to regional airports, HS2, HS3, APD, trade – now have to consider Labour’s perspective. This isn’t as easy as it seems.

The Labour party is a more complex beast than the Conservatives in many ways. It is made up of members, MPs/AMs/ MSPs, councillors, affiliated groups, the National Executive Committee and, of course, the trade unions. The various wings compete (constantly!) for ascendancy within and between these groups in an effort to control the Labour Party.

Labour’s stance on Heathrow
For those of us looking to get Labour to reflect our clients’ positions on key issues, we have to understand these dynamics and how they stack up. One of the most interesting of these areas is Labour’s position on the expansion of Heathrow airport.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, is perhaps the most important person in Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle and he is implacably opposed to Heathrow’s expansion. This is the man, remember, who got suspended from the House of Commons for picking up the ceremonial mace in 2009 after a vote on the airport.

Corbyn himself is opposed, his key advisor, Seamus Milne, lives in the London Borough of Richmond on Thames, which usually means opposition to Heathrow expansion. Even moderates, like the London mayor, are against it. That should be the death knell for a third runway under Labour, you’d assume.

That is where the unions come in. Unite is the main union supporter of Corbyn and had a key role in seeing off the challenge against his leadership. Unite is also in favour of Heathrow expansion. It sees it as key to securing the jobs that are there, developing a world-class workforce, sustaining a supply chain and providing thousands of new apprenticeships. So, too, does the GMB (a slightly more Corbyn-sceptic union).

We’ve picked up in recent weeks that the shadow chancellor is seeking a deal with the unions. The rumours suggest he wants Labour to shift its official position to supporting Gatwick airport expansion and that he needs the unions, and Unite in particular, to back that. Personally, I think this is an almost impossible ask, but it could be about to get harder.

The newest area for people like myself to mug up on has been the politics within trade unions. There are left and right wings within them that struggle for control. Currently, Unite is led by Len McCluskey, a key ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, but his position is in jeopardy. He was re-elected to his post in 2017, but a subsequent investigation into allegations of rule-breaking culminated in an enquiry that could trigger a re-run. His opponent, Gerald Coyne, will run again and he is from the right wing of Labour (and an ally of the ostracised Tom Watson). If Coyne becomes leader, the appetite for a deal with McDonnell will be zero.

It would have seemed bizarre to say it a year ago, but the future of UK national infrastructure may depend on such power struggles.

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