Labour’s ‘Maginot Line’ Moment

It was one of the biggest infrastructure projects in human history.

For much of the 1930’s, and at a cost of 3.3bn francs, France built itself a 900-mile network of tunnels, underground bunkers and concrete gun batteries along much of the Franco-German border. The intention was to protect France from any repeated World War 1-style German invasion.

This was ‘the Maginot Line’; a colossal (but ultimately futile) piece of engineering that the Germans simply bypassed in the war that followed.

At its broadest, the Maginot Line was more than 16 miles deep. It’s underground infantry bunkers, anti-tank and machine gun emplacements and 142 artillery forts were linked by a labyrinth of tunnels and tracks.

These tracks allowed personnel to move from position to position, with access to amenities on the scale of an underground town.

The whole system even had its self-contained telephone and wireless communications infrastructure.

The Maginot Line, however, was to leave France monumentally ill-prepared for the war that was soon to sweep over it. This is probably the best that might also be said about current UK proposals for a third runway at Heathrow airport (and also about Hinkley Point C). In our case, it is a war we are waging against our children.

Cynicism or stupidity?

I have come to accept that today’s divided Conservative government has either a sad or suicidal view of the future. Pushing the Heathrow vote through, in advance of forthcoming assessments from both the Climate Change Committee and (later) the International Panel on Climate Change, points towards cynicism. Both bodies will almost certainly say that the existential urgency is to cut Britain’s carbon emissions, not increase them.

Heathrow expansion would throw petrol on the flames. It would also put unmeetable climate demands onto the lap of domestic housing, energy, business and transport policies. There are Conservative MPs who know (and fear) this. But they are outgunned by their ‘Wild West’, neo-Con colleagues who seek salvation in a deregulated Armageddon of their dreams.

The more honest Tories know Heathrow expansion would be a disaster for the environment, an exacerbation of Britain’s North-South divide, and a sop catering only to the interests of the super-rich in the South of England and to ‘transit’ passengers with no interest in Britain at all.

This is a mess I would happily leave the government in, if it weren’t for the fact that Labour is in the mess too.

Free votes and follies

The ‘free vote’ Labour was forced to attach to its opposition to the government’s Third Runway proposals came from a recognition that 70 of its own MPs were likely to vote with the Tories anyway. It undermined the really clear analysis (and stand) taken by Shadow Transport Secretary, Andy McDonald, and many others. The result was to make Labour look weak, divided and confused.

Most of the Labour ‘rebels’ defended their position by arguing it was what the unions asked of them … privately hoping that someone else would square the climate consequences. Some MPs even talked blithely about an expansionist era of air travel, squabbling over whose regional ‘hub’ might get the largest slice of the cake.

This is ‘parallel universe’ politics. Unless Britain’s debate shifts into ‘frequent flyer’ taxation, where every airport also has a reducing ‘annual carbon budget’ to work within, there will be no cake left for future generations.

Some argue that Heathrow’s ‘third runway’ will, in any case, never be built. The courts will see to this. Its environmental obligations, woefully disregarded in the past, will prove unreachable in the future. Forced clearances of local communities will meet with forced resistance. A Londoners’ right-to-breathe will trump the airport’s right to pollute. But the Dad’s Army myth – that this is where tomorrow’s jobs are to be found – still has to be confronted.

This is Labour’s Maginot moment.

The future, not the past

In many ways the Britain’s labour movement has been on the defensive since the days of Margaret Thatcher. New Labour fudged issues by flirting with ‘flexible labour markets’ and PFI schemes, both of which undermined trade union recruitment and retention. Outside the public sector, the big industrial sectors became the last bastions of trade union organisation and leverage.

‘Defending what we have’ became the understandable platform union leaders came to adopt. Today, a combination of climate crises and disruptive technologies, makes the transformation of these industrial sectors the key to tomorrow’s economics. This is where all the skills, the climate answers and secure jobs are going to be found. They just won’t be the ones we have now.

To avoid climate breakdown we must begin by leaving the carbon in the ground.

In transport, this will involve modal shifts in favour of hydrogen or solar/battery powered vehicles. Such trains are already being trialled in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. The government wants Britain to be a leader in electric vehicle (EV) production, but has no plan of how to get there.

Last year, EV sales in the UK were overtaken by Germany. In Norway, 52% of new car purchases in 2017 were EVs. Meanwhile, China was producing more EV’s than the rest of the world combined, and is doubling its production year on year.

The UK’s pretence to be a leader in this race – by aspiring to end fossil fuel vehicle production by 2040 – would be laughable if it weren’t pitiful. Today’s pioneering countries are already tying modal shifts in transport to broader environmental health priorities. Clean air strategies – where ‘breathing’, cycling and walking all take priority over driving – are already at the centre of tomorrow’s sustainable transport infrastructure planning.

The Heathrow proposals metaphorically flew in the opposite direction. It’s advocates presumed an unlimited air transport expansion which neither the UK, nor the planet, can sustain. There are no jobs to be found on a dead planet.

In this context, watching Labour MPs argue about ‘connectivity’, and whose localities would get the greater slice of the ‘everlasting airport-expansion cake’ was like watching France’s ‘Men from the Maginot Line’ arguing the case for ‘more wall’. The catastrophic (and looming) absurdity of either plan never dawned on them.

One planet living

I used to believe it was my job to save the world. Now I am certain it will be the generation that follows who will do so. Labour’s duty is to deliver the tools they will need. These tools will come in the skills, policies and fiscal priorities Britain will need if it is to race into the Age of Clean.

France now has the first, national, solar panel recycling centre. Britain could have the second. India will buy 10,000 EVs/year, using public sector ‘fleet’ vehicles to drive the change. Britain could do the same. Denmark will not even look at planning applications from buildings that require fossil fuel heating. France requires all new buildings to have solar or nature roofs. California just requires solar. And a dozen or more countries are racing into smart energy systems with energy storage, water management, tree planting and zero-energy housing at their core. All, in their own way, race towards a more circular economy.

Britain could do all of this. But only Labour can open the doors. Its Leaders in parliament must reach into the transformative. It’s trade union leaders must map out the skills base that a smart, circular economy will need. But neither will find answers in an unsustainable past.

The Heathrow debate is a measure of how far we have yet to go.

Alan Simpson

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