Labour’s historic challenge

Labour will have to defy history to bounce back after one term in opposition.

The consensus is that Labour has adapted well to life in opposition, perhaps too well, some say. Despite the lack of a permanent leader, the party's poll ratings have improved and the leadership contest has not been the bloodbath that some predicted.

But it's worth remembering that in order to return to government at the next election, the party will have to defy history. On the previous occasions that Labour has been removed from government, the party has usually been out of power for well over a decade (the exception is Harold Wilson's victory in 1974).

Here are the numbers:

1931-45: 14 years

1951-64: 13 years

1979-97: 18 years

Labour has a good chance of improving on this lamentable record. The party is more united than at any time in its history, and with 258 seats it has significantly more than seats than in 1983 and 1987. But there remains a lingering fear that the coalition will use its time in power to destory Labour as an electorally viable force.

First, David Cameron's plan to reduce the number of MPs by 10 per cent will hit Labour hardest by scrapping seats in Wales and industrial areas that have suffered population flight. Of the 50 seats likely to be abolished, 40 are Labour-held. It is for this reason that you will not meet a Labour MP prepared to support the boundary changes included in the Electoral Reform Bill.

Second, the coalition's plan to revisit the vexed issue of party funding could lead to the introduction of a cap on trade union donations to Labour. With the unions responsible for 64 per cent (£9.8m) of all donations to the party in 2009, such reforms could leave Labour bereft of the funds the party will need to run a successful election campaign.

Finally, were Scotland ever to opt for independence, although that now seems only a distant possibility, 41 of the 59 Westminster seats that would be automatically lost are Labour-held. It's worth adding that, in many of the seats that Labour lost in 2005, the party is now in third, not second, place.

So the next leader will face great challenges, but also the opportunity to achieve what almost none of his or her predecessors has managed to do: return Labour to power after one term.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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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