Alexander struggles to charm as he signs up for more welfare cuts

The man "more right-wing" than George Osborne received a muted response from Lib Dem delegates.

After Vince Cable's deft performance yesterday, Danny Alexander's speech to the Liberal Democrat conference fell rather flat. "Fellow plebs," he began, offering an inferior version of the most memorable line from the Business Secretary's address.

Having been described by one of his party's activists as "more right-wing" than George Osborne, Alexander was on a mission to prove that "it is not impossible to be a Liberal Democrat in the Treasury". So he hailed the progress the coalition had made towards an income tax threshold of £10,000 (adding that the Lib Dems would seek to raise it to £12,500 after the next election), trumpeted the increase in capital gains tax, and, sounding like the world's least terrifying super hero, warned tax dodgers: "we are coming to get you and you will pay your fair share". All of this was politely and even enthusiastically received, but it couldn't compensate for the jarring notes elsewhere.

While he vowed to continue to push for some form of wealth tax, he also signalled that the Lib Dems would have to sign up to further welfare cuts in 2015-16. "At £220bn, welfare is one third of all public spending - and despite our painful reforms it is still rising. We will have to look at it," he said.

Elsewhere, he unwisely mocked Ed Miliband's theme of "predistribution", an idea of considerable appeal to Lib Dem activists. "Apparently it means spending money you don’t have, without knowing where that money is going to come from in the future," he inaccurately surmised. Predictably, it failed to raise so much as a smile from the conference floor.

Offering an even more robust endorsement of George Osborne's strategy than Cable, Alexander erroneously suggested that Britain's record low borrowing rates were the result of the coalition's deficit reduction programme. Yet, as he must surely know, they owe more to the Bank of England's quantitative easing programme (which has seen it buy up hundreds of billions of UK gilts) and our non-membership of the euro (the US, in spite of the loss of its AAA rating, has seen its interest rates fall for the same reason).

Alexander declared that this hard-won "credibility" meant the UK could now afford to guarantee a series of grand projets, offering the example of Crossrail. But with the country already mired in a double-dip recession and unemployment forecast to rise next year, delegates will ask why it took the coalition so long to adopt anything resembling a growth strategy.

One political point worth noting is how little Alexander did to reach out to Labour. He referred twice to "the mess" the party left and joked hopefully that Cable won't have received a "congratulatory text message from Ed Miliband" after his speech (ironically, it was Cable who texted Miliband after the Labour leader's speech last year). The abiding impression was that, in contrast to Cable, he is far more comfortable working with the Tories than Labour. It's one reason why the party faithful struggled to warm to him today.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander delivers his speech at the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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