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Forget Osborne. It was Miliband's afternoon, says Mehdi Hasan

Miliband can do it - give him a chance.

Forget the Budget. As the IPPR's Will Straw pointed out on Twitter:

What a waste of an hour. Nothing in the #Budget that hadnt been leaked.

Indeed. The Hugh Dalton era is well and truly over. George Osborne stood at the despatch box, with his glass of water, and performed a glorified version of a TV-news-channel paper review, confirming the various leaks and briefings to the press - from the cut in the top rate of tax to the increase in the tax allowance. But there was no still no sign of a stimulus package; no plan for growth. The Osborne slump continues.

The economics, therefore, took a backseat to the politics. This was, after all, yet another test for Ed Miliband. How would he perform? What would he say? How would he sound? The coalition's bizarre decision to slash the popular 50p top rate of tax, in particular, presented the leader of the opposition with an open goal - and, this time, he didn't miss. He looked - and sounded - confident; his opponents, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, looked exasperated and annoyed as they sat and listened.

Miliband had facts:

What did the Chancellor say in August last year about America's more balanced deficit plan:

"Those who spent the whole of the past year telling us to follow the American example need to answer this simple question: why has the US economy grown more slowly than the UK economy?"

Mr Deputy Speaker, the numbers are in.

And the Chancellor is plain wrong.

The US economy grew at 1.7% last year, twice the rate of ours.

This Government have run out of excuses.

He had outrage:

Under his tax cut, a banker earning five million pounds will get an extra £240,000 a year.

Let's call this what it really is:

The Government's very own bankers' bonus.

He had humour:

It is great to support the great British success stories like Downton Abbey.

A tale of a group of out of touch millionaires.

Who act like they're born to rule.

But turn out to be no good at it.

Sound familiar Mr Deputy Speaker?

We all know it's a costume drama.

They think it's a fly on the wall documentary.

My own favourite gag/trick was when the Labour leader asked members of the coalition cabinet, seated opposite him, to raise their hands if they would be personally benefiting from the cut in the 50p top rate of tax. It was a cheap shot - but it hit home. Millionaire ministers shifted uneasily in their seats; some - I'm looking at you William Hague and George Young! - looked away and pretended not to hear. "Just nod," proclaimed Miliband, deploying a favourite put-down of the Prime Minister to great effect.

It was, in my view, a brilliant speech - especially given how difficult and awkward it is for leaders of the opposition to respond to Budget statements in the Commons, at such short notice. One friend of Miliband told me: "We were pretty pleased." Well, that's an understatement! Another source close to the Labour leader said the speech was a "group effort" but that "Ed and Torsten [Henricson-Bell, Miliband's economics adviser and the Labour Party's new director of policy] get most credit" for writing it. If only his conference speech had been delivered with such gusto. . .

The former Labour minister and ardent Blairite, George Foulkes, who backed David Miliband in the 2010 leadership contest, tweeted:

Ed Miliband has delivered the best Budget response I have heard from Opposition Leaders in 33 years in Parliament.

Brother David joined the tributes, with this brief tweet:

Excellent Budget response by Ed

The pessimists and defeatists on the Labour front and backbenches should take note not just of the dismal failure of the coalition's austerity measures - which some of the more right-wing among them would like to ape and emulate - but also their leader's bravura performance this afternoon. Yes, I admit: they are few and far between; far too few for my liking. But Miliband can do it. So, as I've said before, give him a chance.

 

 

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.