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Labour's lost generation takes the reigns: Laurie Penny on why we need rampant idealism

It is time for the young left to stop schmoozing and get on with what it does best.

Behind the railroad pass in the quiet backstreets of central Manchester, the Young Labour Party is in full swing and, rather fittingly, two check-shirted DJs are spinning out the greatest hits of 1994. Here, the weary, battle-worn young volunteers, envelope-stuffers, advisers, canvassers, councillors, hash-taggers, tweeters, bloggers and fiddlers have come to unwind after nine sweltering months on ever-more desperate and depressing campaign trails. The room is full of shirtsleeves, sleepy smiles, and the barest suggestion of sex as a hundred earnest men and women in their early twenties realise that for the first time in almost a year, there's time to flirt.

Yesterday Ed Miliband spoke lavishly of Labour's young people, and here they are. This is the "new generation" of whom so much is promised, whose task it is to revivify the party and move on from the more embarrassing losses of the New Labour project. Watching them giggle and slurp pink cider and shuffle to the strains of Salt-n-Pepa, one wants to yell: you've just suffered the greatest defeat the Labour Party has seen for a generation! Most of you aren't even old enough to remember the last Tory government! The coalition is about to turn on the public sector with what Mehdi Hasan today called "fiscal sadism" -- cutting for the sake of cutting -- and your gang could be out of power for another ten years. Why on earth are you all so bloody happy?

Perhaps it's because, as one young Labour blogger told me, "we don't have to pretend any more". There is certainly an atmosphere of relieved sincerity at this conference, with less naked ambition and jostling for ministerial internships and points on CVs. Perhaps now the young left can finally stop "schmoozing and gossiping about who went to dinner with whom" and get on with what it's best at: rampant idealism.

Earlier this week, a prominent Labour figure commented that the party has been so caught up in campaigning that it has not yet come to terms with the profundity of its defeat. That may be true of the shadow cabinet, but it's not the case for Labour's "new generation": these young people know exactly what has been lost, and why, and how badly. They are fully aware of the scale of New Labour's defeat, and the atmosphere is exhilarated. "I think a lot of people are excited," says Vince, who volunteered on Ed Miliband's campaign. "The real fight is still to come, but we've dropped a lot of baggage, and it's all a clean canvas now."

For my generation, remember, New Labour is overwhelmingly associated with betrayal, hypocrisy and disappointment. Despite the Ace of Base pumping out of the sound system, most of us are far too young to remember the true horror of the Thatcher years, or even the elation of 1997. Instead, we remember top-up fees, civil-liberties crackdowns, the crash of 2008 and the Iraq invasion.

"As part of a generation who have grown up under New Labour, turning the page on old orthodoxies couldn't come soon enough," says Sam Tarry, the National Chair of Young Labour. "Ed Miliband's campaign really connected with the next generation of party members -- his willingness to listen and move on mobilised young activists to get involved in a big way. With many of the new young MPs backing Ed Miliband, too, this could signal a re-imagining of the party at the grassroots, with more focus on setting out a credible economic alternative."

Labour's new cohort knows what it's like to lose. We are, after all, the lost generation. We don't expect our dreams and ideals to be realised without a fight, and we don't expect much help from the grown-ups. There is a profound sense at this party conference that the elder generation of Labour statespeople has failed us, and that the time for deference is finally done. "Young Labour is buzzing with ideas, enthusiasm and anticipation of what can be achieved following this conference," said Tarry. With the politicians who saddled us with debt, tanked the economy and took us into Iraq shuffling off into the twilight, one thing's certain: it's our turn now.

 

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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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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