How should Labour respond to calls for strike action?

A dilemma for the next Labour leader.

I've just returned from holiday in France where, like most summers, the country has been convulsed by national strike action, this time over Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to raise the legal retirement age from 60 to 62. Back at home, as the TUC conference gets underway in Manchester, talk of a "winter of discontent" is growing as unions discuss the possibility of coordinated strikes and civil disobedience to resist the coalition's spending cuts.

Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary (interviewed by my colleague Jon Bernstein in the current issue), sounded a more moderate tone on the Today programme this morning, noting that he had not called for "counterproductive" civil disobedience and emphasising the need to come up with a practical alternative to the coalition's slash-and-burn economics.

Meanwhile, figures from the right of the union movement, such as Unite's putative general secretary, Les Bayliss, are warning that strike action will deprive the public of vital services at a time when they need them most. He said: "Strikes will also change the victims - our members - into the villains of the piece. The story will get changed from government savagery to union militancy." But I'd be surprised if his more militant comrades are dissuaded.

There's a big dilemma for the next Labour leader in all of this: should the party support strike action to protect jobs and prevent cuts? With all the candidates frequently expressing their pride at receiving union backing in the leadership contest, it's unthinkable that they won't be challenged to take a position. Harriet Harman has set the bar high, noting that the party is in a "militant" mood (a word surely blacklisted during the New Labour years) and, admirably, mounting a defence of the right to the strike.

The balancing act for the next leader, one suspects, will be staying on the right side of public opinion. But if as one Liberal Democrat cabinet minister predicts, the coming cuts reduce Tory support to just 25 per cent (he expects Lib Dem support to hit 5 per cent), that shouldn't be a problem.

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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