The noble cause of the Heathrow 13

'Existence is Resistance!' Banner at the Climate Camp in Sipson village, wjhich wold be entirely destroyed by a third Heathrow runway, 16th August 2007. Photo: Alice via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
'Existence is Resistance!' Banner at the Climate Camp in Sipson village, wjhich wold be entirely destroyed by a third Heathrow runway, 16th August 2007. Photo: Alice via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
With the 'Heathrow 13' protestors expecting custodial sentences today for their occupation of a Heathrow runway last July, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell MP writes that their direct action followed years of official lies and broken promises, and forms part of a long tradition of direct action protests in defence of democracy.
Given the urgency of Heathrow's environmental problems, and the deeply disappointing lack of commitment of Heathrow and the government to their unequivocal promises, it's inevitable that activists will lose patience with a process they no longer trust.

I have lived in my constituency for nearly 40 years. I represented the constituency as a councillor on the Greater London Council from 1981 to 1986 and I have been the local Member of Parliament from 1997.

Throughout the periods I have held elected office for this area I have been closely involved in dealing with the issues associated with the development of Heathrow Airport.

This has included attendance at the planning inquiries on the development of Terminal Four and Terminal Five.

For over 30 my years I have convened meetings of local residents to discuss the expansion of Heathrow airport and to consult them on the various proposals to expand the airport that have been brought forward over this period.

Although following local consultations I accepted the development of a fourth terminal at the airport, I opposed any further expansion based upon the strongly held views of many of my constituents - especially those living in the Heathrow villages and in the south of Hillingdon - that the levels of noise and air pollution and the loss of homes and indeed whole communities was unacceptable.

Demolished communities, deadly air pollution, climate change

There continue to be extremely high levels of concern expressed by local residents at the threat of a third runway. Local people living in the Heathrow villages are naturally distressed that their homes will be demolished or rendered unliveable as a result of air pollution and increased noise. This will impact upon 4,000 homes, accommodating approximately 10,000 local residents.

Two local schools will be demolished if a third runway goes ahead as well as local community centres and community facilities. The village of Harmondsworth will largely be wiped off the face of the earth and the village of Sipson rendered unliveable.

People are concerned at the rise in air pollution bearing in mind that the air pollution levels in the vicinity of the airport are already often above EU limits. They worry this causes some constituents health problems.

Video by Zoe Broughton.

Heathrow pollution is killing some of my constants and harming the heath of others. The EU limits are designed to keep people safe and yet repeated beaches, an immediate threat to people's lives and health, are allowed to continue, and may be allowed to increase.

There is also an increasing appreciation and concern amongst my constituents about climate change and the deleterious effect airport expansion will have on tackling this threat to our future. Just as we know the toxic pollution Heathrow is producing now will effect people's health, we know that the greenhouse gasses it is emitting will warm the climate, and yet we are still talking about expansion.

Cameron's promise: 'No ifs, no buts, there will be no third runway!'

Given the urgency of Heathrow's environmental problems, and the deeply disappointing lack of commitment of Heathrow and the government to their unequivocal promises, it's inevitable that activists will lose patience with a process they no longer trust.

For all these reasons many of my constituents and I have been campaigning for many years against additional terminals and runways at Heathrow. We have used a wide range of methods in these campaigns including lobbying their local councillors, Members of Parliament and Government ministers. In addition they have used traditional methods of public meetings, marches, demonstrations and peaceful direct action.

The opposition to expanding Heathrow became a lot more visible, and more powerful, in the last ten years, as the environmental movement focussed on aviation, and particularly aviation growth, as a major threat to the climate, and the issue grew to become the defining local issue for many MPs and other politicians representing west London.

During 2010, along with counsellors, residents and environmental campaigners we took the government to the high court over plans to expand Heathrow. During this case we argued that the case for a third runway was neither economically nor environmentally sound. We won this case on these grounds and the judge said that expansion of Heathrow was untenable in law and common sense. This is still the view I hold today.

This campaigning has secured recommendations and promises from planning inspectors, politicians and indeed the owners of Heathrow airport that no further expansion would or should go ahead.

The Planning Inspector at the Terminal 5 inquiry advised against further Heathrow expansion and the airport owners wrote to my constituents saying that they did not need and would not seek a third runway if they were given permission for a fifth terminal. The current prime minister prior to the 2010 general election famously stated: "No ifs, no buts, there will be no third runway!"

For many of us who had devoted enormous time and effort to this cause, this felt like a momentous event. We thought we had quite deliberately been given an unequivocal promise by the man who now has the final say.

The case for direct action

Unfortunately these promises have not been held to and we are faced with a renewed lobby by the owners of the airport for expansion and the prime minister has argued that his promise was only for the lifetime of a Parliament and has set in train a process, which may believe is aimed at delivering expansion at Heathrow.

This has resulted in many considering that a return to campaigning including lobbying, demonstrating and direct action is needed to try and ensure that the promises of politicians and the airport owners are adhered to.

At times the debate around whether to expand Heathrow has been a disgrace to our democracy. The manoeuvring to keep the decision away from parliament and the people, including my constituents, and keep it between ministers and lobbyists, pushed me to stage my own protest by taking the mace during a parliamentary debate in 2009 on the expansion of Heathrow, as a result of which I was suspended from parliament for five days.

My experience in politics over the last 40 years has shown me that these campaigning methods can be extremely successful in bringing the public's attention to an issue and in influencing government decisions. Securing publicity by means of direct action can alert people across the country to an issue that then leads them to a closer examination of that issue and often taking the matter up with the relevant policy makers.

In this way policies are influenced and changed for the good of the whole community. But in order to be a direct action rather than an extension of political speech, it also stops, or at least interrupts, the problem it is addressing, which makes it a disruptive act.

Civil disobedience - sometimes there really is no alternative

Although the specific direct action can at times cause some short term inconvenience, by highlighting a threat like climate change, it can have a longer term and more significant effect on averting the impact of a greater risk.

When an activist or group decide to intervene to interrupt a problem directly, they take on a huge responsibility to ensure what they do is safe, proportionate and reasonable. No-one should disrupt other people's lives lightly or without good cause.

But modern history is full of examples of peaceful civil disobedience which was both necessary and effective, and in many cases a vital defence of democracy. Some governments and some corporations need more than just a sternly worded letter.

Of course I will have always sought to and will continue to maximise the use of Parliamentary methods to seek to influence the Government's decision on Heathrow.

But one of the most effective methods of securing political change on this issue in the past has been the demonstration by campaigning of the large scale and extensive opposition to an additional runway at Heathrow. Direct action campaigns have made a significant contribution to this.

Given the urgency of the environmental problems Heathrow is causing, and the deeply disappointing lack of commitment shown by Heathrow and the government to unequivocal promises they have both made, it's almost inevitable that activists will lose patience with a process that they no longer trust and do what they can to solve the problems themselves. 



John McDonnell is the Labour Member of Parliament for Hayes and Harlington, home to Heathrow Airport, since 1997, and in 2015 became Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer in September. His website is at

This statement was originally published by Plane Stupid.

More information: Latest news on Heathrow 13 trial.