Careful -- it would be a mistake to write off Ed Balls

The former schools secretary has a good chance of succeeding his ex-boss as Labour leader.

So Ed Balls has finally declared his candidacy for the leadership of the Labour Party. He is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the media's preferred candidate. And some Labour MPs, too, accuse him of being a bully, a schemer and a behind-the-scenes briefer, lacking in charisma, divisive, too close to Gordon Brown and an unreconstructed tribalist. But as I wrote on the Guardian's Comment is Free site during the election campaign:

Perhaps Balls isn't the dyed-in-the-wool Labour tribalist he is so often assumed to be by the great and good in the Westminster village. As even Martin Kettle, one of his leading critics, acknowledged on Cif: "If Balls were to be the next Labour leader, he would not, I think, be quite as bone-headedly labourist as many assume. This is a man who has crossed from the centre right to the centre left of the Labour Party in double-quick time, after all." But Kettle adds: "The main charge that those in the know make about Balls is not that he is dogmatic but that he is purely tactical -- opportunist is the word one hears most often."

Is the Balls shift to the left an act of opportunism? Perhaps -- although he has long been a proponent of "dividing lines" between left and right. Will it be enough to secure the votes of the Labour left? If Jon Cruddas fails to throw his hat in the ring and his opponent is David Miliband, I suspect it will. The children's secretary is making all the right (or should that be left?) noises.

The same journalists, commentators and MPs who wrote off Gordon Brown for three years, and wrongly assumed GB would be toppled by a coup, or resign in shame, or be humiliated on 6 May in a landslide defeat, now write off Balls, claiming he has no chance.

There is no doubt that the former schools secretary faces an uphill struggle against the Miliband brothers -- especially David, the clear front-runner and highest-profile candidate. But as the Guardian's John Harris -- no fan of Balls -- points out today on Cif:

Thus far, he [Balls] seems to be positioning himself as the poster boy for the less-than-erogenous Labour zone where dog-whistle toughness of the John Reid/Hazel Blears variety meets union-friendly Labourism.

The chatterati may scoff, but to the people who kept their party cards while all around were tearing theirs up, that will have a real appeal.

Meanwhile, the new labour-uncut website makes this observation:

Balls is also the one who has done the most work over the last five years. He's the only one who's been assiduously traipsing round the Friday night rubber chicken circuit of local Labour parties since 2005.

He has made the most effort to court the unions, and starts ahead in that section of the electoral college. And he has worked harder than David Miliband, though perhaps not than Ed, at convincing his fellow Labour MPs to like him.

Oh yes, let's not forget the support of the unions -- in particular, Unite.

But Balls's first challenge will be to gather together the necessary 33 signatures from fellow MPs in order to stand next week. Some newspapers have claimed he is struggling to get above 15 MPs, but a source in the Balls camp claims "we're pretty much there already. We're just not putting them all into the public domain at once."

Interestingly, among Balls's declared supporters is the Blairite former defence minister Eric Joyce, who resigned from the Brown government over the handling of the war in Afghanistan. Perhaps, as I've written before, Balls isn't as divisive or tribal a figure as is often assumed in the Westminster village.

Either way, my message to the Miliband brothers and the media: you write him off at your peril.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

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