Nine years since John McDonnell dramatically removed the Speaker’s mace demanding a Parliamentary vote on Heathrow expansion,119 Labour MPs joined Tory MPs to vote for building a third runway at Heathrow airport.
Arguments for airport expansion in the south-east rest on Heathrow’s claims that it will create “up to 180,000 new jobs” alongside economic growth totalling £187bn distributed across the country and increased ‘connectivity’.
Expansion will be environmentally disastrous bringing noise and air pollution to South London, while decimating the UK’s already inadequate carbon reduction targets. The climate crisis is worsening with tipping points surpassed at rates outdoing the least conservative predictions. Fossil fuels must stay in the ground to avoid accelerating climate breakdown; we cannot build new carbon-intensive infrastructure locking our economy into emissions. The most outrageous element of Heathrow expansion is the airport’s emphasis on increasing domestic connectivity. On a small island covered in rail infrastructure, it is unfathomable that the marginal benefit for businesses of flying within the UK to Heathrow outweighs emissions when they could take the train instead.
The major clash between proponents and opponents of expansion is around jobs. Tensions between the climate movement and trade unions intensified as Unite backed the third runway. It is intuitive that unions would support a major infrastructure assuring secure jobs for their members. On the other hand, environmentalists’ popular refrain ‘no jobs on a dead planet’ synthesises a longer-term view of secure employment in the context of an urgent climate crisis.
This dichotomy is counter-productive for both. For climate and labour movements to transform society and achieve climate and workers’ justice, we must understand that at capitalism’s root is a symbiotic relationship between the exploitation of labour-power and the appropriation of nature. Simply, the value capital steals from workers enables it to extract resources like fossil fuels endlessly, and vice-versa.
Practically, this understanding should inform shared strategy between labour and climate movements. Each should identify capital – manifest as fossil fuel companies, banks or bosses – as the enemy to take power from. Indeed, both should use moments like Heathrow expansion to catalyse a convergence in our goals and strategies. Our ambition should be for the labour and climate movements to become inseparable. Every trade unionist should organise for climate justice. Every ‘environmental activist’ should organise through the labour movement.
The Heathrow expansion debate should never have been ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ versus climate. Airport expansion in the south-east should never have been the only infrastructure project on offer. Had the climate and labour movements collaborated, the last decade could have been used to co-develop alternative plans assuring both more jobs and carbon reductions.
41 Labour MPs wrote to their colleagues arguing for expansion because it would deliver “connectivity to [their] constituents”. This common sense was propagated by a decade of relentless PR campaigning by both Heathrow and Gatwick. The labour and climate movements have failed to organise against this with arguments for domestic and regional connectivity beyond aviation. It has failed to create the political conditions were anything other than Heathrow expansion would be voted through.
Going forward, we must reimagine calls for ‘greater connectivity’ as compatible with rapidly decarbonising economies. We must articulate the possibilities of a ‘renewables lock-in’ to counter the ‘carbon lock-in’ exacerbated by airport expansion. By investing in zero-carbon high-speed rail infrastructure, spanning the UK and into continental Europe (reducing journey times and costs too), ensuring all new transport technologies are irreversibly dependent on renewable energies, we provide secure jobs, material decarbonisation and shared prosperity in cheap mass transit.
Hope for this alternative is not lost. Local authorities’ proposed legal challenge could frustrate the third runway’s construction, potentially alongside a blockadia-style movement mirroring anti-fracking in Lancashire. However, to achieve any alternative, the labour and climate movements must re-evaluate their relationship. PCS union can inspire others with their Just Transition and Energy Democracy report and campaigning for its recommendations. The unions must be democratised, but the climate movement must get organised.
We must recognise our strategic and organisational flaws including that for too long we have been content as an ideologically pure protest fringe, avoiding strategies to define the public debate, win power and transform society. Without organising in solidarity through the labour movement, climate campaigning will never be a mass movement, and neither workers nor those impacted by climate breakdown will enjoy justice.