No sex. No drugs. And no leaders

Life on the front line of student activism.

"No sex. No drugs. And no leaders", the New Statesman's cover story this week, tells the intimate story of the winter student uprisings of 2010, putting human faces to the mob that has so terrified the right-wing press. It is the longest and most high-profile feature I've worked on to date, but that's not the only reason it's been so difficult to write.

Over the past few months I have become, and remain, deeply embedded in the student movement in the UK and Europe. Many of the young people who feature in the piece – on whose activities I've been keeping meticulous notes, and who are of a similar age and political attitude to myself – have since become as close to personal friends as observational subjects ever can be. It's not so much a question of going native as finding that all the other natives have suddenly come out of the forest to take on the invaders. This has stretched my objectivity to its limits. I have had to work and rework the article to make sure I was constructing an accurate portrait.

The trajectory of journalistic dispassion is fraught with misunderstanding and lies. Even if utterly dispassionate, objective journalism were an obtainable or desirable standard, I would gladly set that standard aside until such time as I found myself no longer working in a world that contains the dangerous reactionary partiality of the Daily Mail, the Sun and the rest of the Murdoch empire. It is, nonetheless, important for liberal writers to retain distance where corporate flunkies refuse to, lest our romanticism – and left-wing politics are, at heart, always romantic – be mistaken for propaganda.

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This movement is deeply romantic. It is desperately idealistic and shocks with its undercurrent of seriousness and cynicism, but it is not without flaws. These young people have been radicalised at great speed, and they have made mistakes as well as winning victories. One thing they are not, however, is children playing games. For them, the political situation, with new cuts to public services announced every day, is too desperate to brook any useless high jinks.

I believe, from what I have seen, that the energy of the student movements will persist, but it would be obtuse to predict with any certainty when or how this storm of resistance will disperse. Nobody really knows what's going to happen next, which is why it's such an exciting time to be a political journalist. All I've tried to do here is tell the stories that aren't getting told.

The people who appear in this article are not the leaders of the movement. They are just some of an estimated 5,000 dedicated student activists – young people who have devoted themselves fully to building a resistance movement that links in with trade unions and community groups across the country. Millions of students and workers stand behind them, every one of them with an unique background and agenda, all sharing the same objective: to halt the destruction of welfare, public education and civic society in the UK and across the world as ideological austerity programmes begin to bite.

I know which side I'm on. We've got a long fight ahead of us.

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

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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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