Labour coups are good for the left

Losing the election will mean a rebrand, but the cleansing process has already begun

It is a common narrative on the right that once Labour loses the next election there will be great bloodletting within the party. Labour will stumble around in the wilderness for years while failing to land any punches on the Conservatives.

But such a view fails to recognise the nature of dividing lines within the party. And, paradoxically, the recent attempted coups against Gordon Brown make such civil war even less likely.

The conventional thinking says that following defeat, the left and centrist factions within Labour will fight a bloody battle for years. Groups such as Compass will fight for a leftward shift, while the centrists from Progress will advocate staying moderate to attract independent and Tory voters. Loud civil war will ensue.

While there will be discord, various factors mitigate the risk that the party will tear itself apart. First, the biggest unspoken dividing line between the left and Labour is not economic issues, but the Iraq war. This continues to haunt Brown and still defines the party and cabinet ministers around him. It is the single biggest issue that keeps lefties away from Labour.

And so the purge of cabinet ministers through failed coups is a positive move because it has ejected those tainted by the war as well as the expenses scandal: Geoff Hoon, James Purnell, Hazel Blears, Jacqui Smith, Tony McNulty and Patricia Hewitt. Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and John Prescott are no longer at the helm either.

Second, the big beasts of the centre left (Jon Cruddas, Harriet Harman, Ed Miliband) are intelligent enough to recognise that the core Labour base alone won't win them elections. Cruddas has stated this repeatedly, even to Compass members, which has not endeared him to many socialists. But the hard left, for now, remains too divided and powerless to exercise excessive influence over the party's direction.

Third, one of New Labour's distinguishing characteristics has been to avoid the mistakes of the past (industrial militancy, lack of discipline) in almost paranoid fashion. This generation knows that the longer it pursues infighting after the election, the longer it will be out in the wilderness. Once the leadership contest is out of the way, it's very likely the party will be quick to turn its fire on the Tories again.

It is also likely that new media will play a role in ensuring a degree of discipline. When Blears and Purnell resigned in June last year, and when Hoon and Hewitt made their move, there was a swift and loud backlash by Labour members and lefties online. And on both occasions there were no visible signs of support for the coups.

Once Labour is out of power, party members and the broader left alike will want to see unity pretty quickly, so that anger can be directed at the Tories. The web will play its part in ensuring this happens.

That isn't to say that economic issues are irrelevant. Labour will have to move leftwards in opposition, to differentiate itself from the Conservatives, sound more populist and accept the need for a motivated base that delivers leaflets and fights for the party. But that does not necessarily mean electoral wilderness, given that the economic crisis has, in any case, made Britons less accepting of the City's largesse.

If Labour loses the election, a new leader will have no choice but to overhaul the Labour brand and admit to mistakes of the past. That will have to include saying sorry for the Iraq war to help mend bridges with many disillusioned lefties. Helpfully, the cleansing process has already begun.

Sunny Hundal is editor of the left-wing blog Liberal Conspiracy.

This article appears in this week's issue of the New Statesman, available from all good newsagents.

 

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Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy.

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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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