Michael Gove is guilty of hypocrisy over the Labour heckler

Gove's call for the heckler to be "expelled" is at odds with his support for free speech.

Education provided a rare flashpoint at the Labour conference after a Year 11 pupil addressing delegates was heckled from the floor. When Joan al-Assam, a pupil from Paddington Academy (established by the last Labour government under the Academies programme), praised the arts programmes offered by her school, a woman in the audience shouted: "They do that at comprehensives too you know".

The intervention was immediately criticised by other delegates, with one woman responding, "Leave her alone", while the girl, apparently unfazed (hecklers are part of political life, after all), continued with her speech. But that didn't stop Michael Gove issuing a press release calling for the heckler to be "expelled" from Labour. He said:

Heckling a schoolgirl because she goes to an academy is disgraceful. But it also shows the real face of Labour – a party where aspiration and achievement gets booed. Stephen Twigg needs to condemn this and the culprit must be expelled from the party [emphasis mine]. This pupil is a credit to her school and proof that we need to expand the Academies programme.

It's a demand rather at odds with the Education Secretary's previously stated support for free expression. During his much-lauded appearance at the Leveson inquiry in May, Gove declared:

Freedom of speech doesn’t mean anything unless some people are going to be offended some of the time

Hear, hear. But judging by the response of Gove and other Conservatives to the heckler, she should have been frogmarched out as Walter Wolfgang was when he shouted "nonsense" at Jack Straw during the 2005 conference. Of that incident, David Cameron declared: "it lays bare the full absurdity of the Orwellian New Labour project". Indeed it did. But isn't there something similarly "Orwellian" about Gove's call for the heckler to be "expelled"?

The test of our commitment to free speech is that we grant it to those with whom our disagreement is at its strongest. It is one that Gove has failed.

Education Secretary Michael Gove said the heckler "must be expelled from the party". 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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