Disagreements and debates abound at the Lib Dem conference

The leadership no longer have an iron grip over proceedings at conference – and it’s better for it.

Thinking back over the last five years of party conferences, it is striking that this has been the least managed of them all. Party managers have not done the usual work behind the scenes to ensure that the leadership view prevails.

The leadership learned the bitter lesson of defeat when Norman Lamb lost a vote at conference on privatisation of the Royal Mail in September 2005. From that moment on, there was a determined effort to manage the controversial moments.

Leaflets to delegates, ensuring the right speakers are lined up, gentle persuasion in the bars in the evenings, plenty of phone calls – these things had become part of the process of managing conference in the preceding weeks. But in Liverpool, very little activity of this sort has taken place.

Why is that? One reason is that, as a result of the coalition, it has become more acceptable to disagree. There are reconciliation processes, designed by Labour and the Lib Dems in Scotland, where conflicts in policy are brought to a committee and resolved. Of course there are limits, but open disagreement no longer feels like the threat it used to.

Another reason is that, like a pressure cooker, this conference had to let off some steam. On future strategy, on free schools and on Trident, there was a clear need for the party to assert itself. Vince Cable in his speech today said that he expects conference to keep him and his colleagues "honest".

A final reason is that a democratic process has the potential to strengthen, not weaken the Lib Dems who are in government. Because decision-making is open and democratic, the ministers in government know that behind them are some powerful policy agreements and the full agreement (or sometimes disagreement) of a political party.

The question I have is: post-CSR, what will happen next year? Will less still be more? Or will the party managers be back in action?

Olly Grender is a political consultant. She was director of communications for the Liberal Democrats between 1990 and 1995.

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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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