Leader: Labour has a bold economic programme but can it win the people’s trust?

Mr Miliband has reminded us again of his talents as a rhetorician but it is his party’s conduct in the next year that will determine whether he is rewarded with the chance to serve.

Ed Miliband left the Labour party conference in Brighton in a stronger position than when he arrived. After a dismal summer for the party, his hour-long, conversational speech on Tuesday 24 September, delivered from memory and without notes, attempted to engage with most of the criticisms levelled at his deliberative and sometimes ponderous leadership. His good speech, as well as the sunny weather on the south coast, seemed to raise the morale of many Labour MPs, who had seemed pessimistic at the beginning of the conference.
 
Confronting accusations of a policy vacuum, Mr Miliband outlined a series of signature commitments aimed at easing what he and his colleagues call the “living standards crisis”: prices, he said, had risen faster than wages in 38 of the coalition’s 39 months. With his populist pledge to freeze gas and electricity bills until 2017 – resisted robustly by the energy companies, which warned of possible power shortages and blackouts – he attempted to address what polls show is one of voters’ greatest concerns. The pledge also offered a powerful dividing line with the Conservatives, who rejected the proposal out of hand. With this measure, the Labour leader has begun to articulate what he means by phrases such as “responsible capitalism” and signalled his intention to use the power of government to shape markets in favour of consumers.
 
Similarly bold were his promises on childcare and housing. His plan to require all primary schools to offer care from 8am to 6pm would benefit the economy by enabling more parents, particularly women, to return to full-time employment – a model successfully pursued in the Scandinavian countries. On housing, where the coalition has inflated demand through the Help to Buy scheme, Mr Miliband turned his attention to the fundamental problem of supply. His pledge to build 200,000 new homes a year by 2020 and to punish land-banking developers by forcing them to “use or lose” their land would, if implemented, go some way to mending Britain’s broken housing market. After so skilfully mobilising opposition to the “bedroom tax”, he was also sensible to pledge to repeal this punitive and unpopular measure.
 
However, in response to those who fear that he simply wishes to pursue what his brother, David Miliband, once characterised in these pages as a programme of “defensive social democracy”, he also spoke ambitiously of creating an integrated health and social care service and of winning a “race to the top” through a broad expansion of apprenticeships, more in line with the German model.
 
Yet, for Labour, the greatest challenge remains to persuade a sceptical electorate to favour it over the Conservatives when Mr Miliband’s poll ratings are so poor and the party is not trusted to manage the economy. Where the speech fell short was in its failure to reassure the public that Labour has learned from its past mistakes and can once again be entrusted with the nation’s finances.
 
The party’s perceived fiscal profligacy is perhaps the greatest obstacle to its election but Mr Miliband mentioned the deficit just once in his speech. Until Labour wins back economic trust – if, indeed, it can do so before the general election in 2015 – the danger is that voters will doubt its ability to deliver its ambitious and, in some cases, expensive policies of transformation without alienating business and again imperilling stability.
 
Last year, Mr Miliband’s bravura conference performance in Manchester, in which he evoked the spirit of Disraeli, raised hopes that Labour could establish itself as a government-in-waiting. Yet because of the party’s failure to sustain the momentum that followed and to flesh out the meaning of its leader’s “one nation” theme, this opportunity was wasted. With a sharper slogan – “Britain can do better than this” – and a set of emblematic policies, the shadow cabinet now has the makings of a coherent programme. Mr Miliband has reminded us again of his talents as a rhetorician but it is his party’s conduct in the next year that will determine whether he is rewarded with the chance to serve, or whether parliament will remain hung.
Ed Miliband's bravura conference performance in Manchester raised hopes that Labour could establish itself as a government-in-waiting. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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