Labour leadership: what role will the SpAds play?

Special advisers should be part of the bridge between frontbenchers and the party membership.

The Labour leadership debates rumble on and now look likely to generate more light than heat. Despite the acres of coverage, one shadowy and influential group's views remain untested: the special advisers (SpAds), who tirelessly work to ensure their master's voice makes the 8.10 slot on the Today programme, among other things.

Caffeine-, alcohol- and nicotine-fuelled, sleep-deprived and harassed, they played a key part in New Labour's rise and fall. They live in the 24-hour news cycle, feeding off opinion polls and policy papers.

Some are working unpaid while they wait to find post-election jobs. The SpAds with funding are jockeying for position in the leadership race. Who wins has a personal financial imperative.

But few have paused for deep reflection on why the party lost, or what is the big idea that will bring voters back to the fold. This is critical, because they should be part of the bridge between frontbenchers and the party membership, rather than the gap.

There is a danger the party will end up with business as usual -- scoring points when it should place itself above and beyond the competition.

A group of former ministerial advisers pledged at a recent gathering that they would "hold the line" while the leadership campaign ran through and once the new leader was in place in the autumn they would, in the words of one aide, "recalibrate".

The dangerous strategy is: "Get new face in place and get the Tories out within 18 months."

Yet this acts as a potential straitjacket, restricting any move towards meaningful debate and change. Holding the line means that the key people involved in formulating and then "selling" the party's future are engaged in a junior-common-room debate.

Moving on

New Labour lost because it is out of touch with the day-to-day needs of Joe Public, despite its commitment to "continuous modernisation". People are fearful for their own, and their children's, future. They're time-poor and cash-poor. They certainly don't have the time, never mind the inclination, to read the policy documents SpAds obsess about.

Business as usual means a missed chance to really develop ideas like sustainability, which even business is now grasping.

And the still-palpable anger among party members over the Iraq war has yet to register. As one SpAd revealed: "We've moved on, the usual suspects haven't. Trying to give the cabinet a kicking over a closed issue is pointless."

What little is emerging as new policy also comes in for a drubbing from the insiders. David Miliband's call for greater inclusion of party members in policy decision-making through forums was treated with distain.

"Anyone suggesting that has never tried organising one," was one exasperated response. "You give the solution and track the reaction on the basis that you haven't got all day to hear about how you haven't asked the right question and haven't included all the interest groups."

So, what's missing? In short, the vision thing -- but one that everyday people can relate to -- that differentiates the party very clearly from the Conservatives.

But it has to be something that doesn't sound like tax and spend: zero-sum games to show who can tackle the deficit will not inspire. Since when did we all become accountants?

Two of the telling moments in the general election campaign were Gordon Brown's surprise to learn that the cleaners at HM Treasury earned less than a living wage and the party's condemnation of BA cabin crew for striking.

A new social contract

There has to be a better way to make people's lives more bearable. What is the contract a Labour government would offer the people it serves?

Modern public services are about things such as enabling older people to live in their homes for longer, or filling in benefits online rather than completing the same form ten times. It's not small government, but the small tedious stuff that government needs to do better. To escape the big versus small argument, tell us what good government looks like.

The workplace is still ruled by a Victorian factory day that starts at 9 and might end at 5.30 if you're lucky enough to be one of the few who don't have the longest working hours in Europe.

What is an affordable home, and how much would it cost? And how can you support a 25-year mortgage in a job market that is a free-for-all with zero security?

How do you create meaningful jobs? What will they be and where will they be?

How do you help those people who are struggling with crippling mortgages, university debt or chronically low wages save for a retirement with employers exiting pensions of any worth?

Whatever happened to family-friendly? The education system got money for schools and teachers' wages, but did testing really improve outcomes? After 14 years of government, where you are born -- and to whom -- still decides your future. How is that right?

Another special adviser advised me to ignore the debates and look at the Kremlinology.

"Diane Abbott's the pantomime dame and Andy Burnham keeps the social worker wing happy. It's about Balls versus Miliband," they said.

It misses the point. New Labour was about distancing itself from the days of Brezhnev. But distance is what the SpAds and other party thinkers need right now, along with a holiday.

Chris Smith is news editor for the MJ and a former lobby correspondent.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.