Fabian Society hustings: are you a socialist?

The five candidates for the Labour leadership were grilled on their definitions of socialism and the

Are you now, or have you ever been, a socialist? The Labour leadership candidates all pleaded guilty to quietly harbouring ideological convictions when asked what socialism meant to them, though they may well have anticipated some inquiry of a philosophical kind given that last night's hustings event at the Institute of Education in London was organised by the Fabian Society in partnership with a "broad front of the mind" (namely Progress, Compass, LabourList, Left Foot Forward and the Young Fabians).

Only David Miliband hinted that the question offered an old shibboleth, before showing that he was prepared to genuflect before it anyway in being "happy to sign up to" the assertion that "Labour is a democratic socialist party", a statement left in new Labour's new Clause Four in 1995.

This was clearly judged not quite the moment for Miliband the Elder to identify social democracy as the main live ideological strand of the socialist traditions, and to stake his claim that its political future now depends on a plural progressive fusion with the liberal tradition. Perhaps there will be other occasions and platforms for that argument, but a leadership hustings wasn't the place.

Miliband the Younger struck a Compassite note in arguing that socialism was about a critique of capitalism, or it was nothing: "being a socialist for me is about being willing to criticise capitalism and the injustices it creates". There is a significant difference of tone and rhetoric here, though "It is not about abolishing capitalism, but it is about changing it" was also essentially an argument for social-democratic reform, proposed as the viable means to meet socialist ends.

Andy Burnham quoted a popular socialist, saying that Billy Bragg's line "I've got a socialism of the heart" was the ethical socialist tradition rooted in the idea of community. For Burnham, socialism is about looking out for each other -- his best line of the night had been: "All of the things we criticise in the American health system are present in the way we fund care for older people in this country." But reciprocity has a hard edge in demanding a contribution, too: "Everybody looks out for each other, and everybody who is able to does their bit and makes a contribution."

Ed Balls wanted to make clear that he had been taking flak long before the contest for declaring himself "proud to be a democratic socialist" -- in the New Statesman, no less, during the New Labour high tide. The distinctive idea was collectivism in breaking down barriers.

But the substantive shift in "party ideology after New Labour" was not demonstrated by how they dealt with the S-word. That was a question Tony Blair could answer, too: hyphenating social-ism to argue it is essentially a "we're in this together" creed. (Indeed, Blair devoted a very short Fabian pamphlet to fleshing that thought out.)

What Blair the Social-ist had been unable to say, interviewed by Jeremy Paxman during the 2001 election, was that narrowing the gap between rich and poor mattered. Each of the "next-generation New Labour" candidates found ways to directly reference and reject his approach to what became known as "the David Beckham question", showing that Diane Abbott's claim that "there was a period when it seemed as though equality was a dirty word in the party" was now about the New Labour past and not the future.

Ed Miliband stated clearly: "It must be a central objective of policy to narrow the gap between rich and poor. It is so hard to do, that unless you make it a central objective, it isn't going to happen."

Ed Balls repudiated Mandelsonism, too, stating: "We aren't intensely relaxed about the filthy rich and it is important we say that." However, he wanted to stress the important commitments the previous government had made on redistribution and poverty, while attacking its "pandering" on inheritance tax in 2007 as a major political mistake.

"The gap does matter: it is not just about the floor, it is about inequality, too," said David Miliband, wanting to give equal priority to inequalities of wealth and power. As did Andy Burnham, who spoke about his background having informed his belief in a society where "health, wealth and life chances were more equal", presenting this as his defining mission and the cause of the party.

So Labour is clearly once again a pro-equality party. Yet, on the socialism question, it was Diane Abbott of the Campaign Group who suggested that a commitment to socialism need not be rooted in an intellectual framework.

"I am a socialist. What's it about? Well, I've never been a special adviser, I'm not an intellectual. For me, it's about: if you draw a line in the sand, what side are you on? If you come from a minority working-class background, you are acutely aware of what it is to feel marginalised in society. I've always chosen to stand with the voiceless and the powerless."

That hint of disdain for the usefulness of ideological speculation may be a rather more authentic Labourist tradition than any theory of socialism has ever been (the trade unions would never have founded the party if it had really wanted to be a socialist one).

The Fabian intellectual G D H Cole had written, somewhat approvingly, of Labour having a "socialism so undefined in its doctrinal basis as to make recruits readily among people of different types".

With the candidate of the left suggesting she was the least interested in the question of ideology, Cole's description of Labour as "a broad movement on behalf of the bottom dog" would seem to be the idea of socialism around which all five leadership candidates can easily converge.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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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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