Hinkley Point and grammar schools show May’s electoral priorities – and why she could have a problem with airport expansion

Approval of Hinkley Point and plans for more secondary moderns might seem unrelated – but they have a shared politics and point towards a decision in favour of expanding either Heathrow or Gatwick.

Hinkley and selective education are both unpopular with the left and with most experts. Increasing the number of secondary moderns is so evidently bad for most children that even Corbyn could take May apart on it. And although the debate about Hinkley Point’s merits is more disputed, in both cases the government will face a long battle to achieve what it’s promised.

But the political appeal for Theresa May is clear.

Her message is that this is a government that will act decisively to promote jobs and skills. Grammar schools and Hinkley convey this effectively to one of May’s key target audiences.

In YouGov’s poll from before the secondary moderns announcement, the only groups of which a majority supported new grammars were 2015 Tory voters and Ukip voters, and the over 65s. The polls on Hinkley are less useful but this recent Opinium poll found that the same three groups are the strongest supporters of new nuclear power stations.

This seems a clear sign that May’s top target in any early election wouldn’t be people who voted for Miliband last year and are now put off by Corbyn. She’d go for those who voted for Farage.

This makes electoral sense. There are 67 Labour-held seats where the combined 2015 Tory and Ukip vote was more than the Labour share. Flipping those to Tory would give a Blair-style landslide. (This is pre-boundary changes)

When it comes to airport expansion, public opinion is divided, but support seems to be strongest among the same groups who support Hinkley and grammar schools. This 2015 Populus poll found the over 65s to be the only age group in which a majority supports expansion.

If the government is prepared to force more schools to become secondary moderns – in the face of all evidence about their benefit – the fact that London airport expansion is supported by the same people makes it seem likely that the government will go ahead.

But there’s one problem that could transform the calculation.

Support for grammar schools is evenly spread across the country. Support for London airport expansion isn’t. While 52% of Londoners supported expansion in that Populus poll, among people in many other parts of the country, support is only 35-39%.

This won’t be a problem for the government so long as the decision is seen to only affect London and the South East. Many people outside those areas are indifferent – they see it as a question for London that doesn’t affect them.

But, as I found in my paper for the Campaign for Better Transport last month, building a new runway in London means airports in the rest of the country will be restricted in size. Ticket prices would go up for all flights across the country.

This is hardly mentioned in the debate. As long as it isn’t, London airport expansion will seem to most people to be a London issue – and it will make political sense for May’s government to use it to appeal to the same people who like grammar schools and nuclear power.

But of those 67 target seats, only nine are in London and the South East. If it were widely realised that London airport expansion would restrict growth in the rest of the country, the plans may be a lot less politically appealing than they seem.

 

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