Miliband’s new spinner offers fire and fury

Tom Baldwin is a mad, bad but inspired choice for Ed Miliband’s press supremo.

Tom Baldwin is a mad, bad but inspired choice for Ed Miliband's press supremo. Those proclaiming that the new Labour leader should dispense with a sultan of spin should avert their eyes now. Ed has appointed a cross between Alastair Campbell, Hunter S Thompson and Rasputin.

When he worked for the Times, Tom Baldwin occupied that strange twilight world between hack and spinner. By day he adopted the pretence of loyal Thunderer scribe. But by night, when the bars, alcoves and corridors of Westminster grew dark, Tom Baldwin, New Labour tribune came to the fore.

He was totally unabashed about his support for the party. "I see my job is to keep Labour in power as long as I can," he once told me. It wasn't just the drink talking. Tom is a Labour man. Not as rooted in its culture and history as, say, a Campbell or a Routledge, but a true believer nonetheless.

He was also a brilliant journalist. His skill, which no one else mastered, was to win the trust and intimacy of the Blairite and the Brownite camps simultaneously. This was no mean feat, especially given that his own political instincts pulled him towards Blair, and the Brownite radar invariably flipped to alert mode when it detected someone not firmly anchored within the Brown sphere of influence.

His success was embedded in his innate sense of mischief. He revelled in causing trouble, regardless of the source or the victim. If the Blairites gave him a good story, he would launch it against Brown. If the Brownites responded, as they invariably did, he would send a salvo right back again.

Tom was a gun for hire. But always a Labour one.

When the party was in government, Tom almost became an extension of the Whitehall spin machine. When I was working for the GMB, and running hard against Blair's PFI policy he caught me in the bar. "Just to let you know, we're going to have to have a real go at you and [John] Edmonds. Nothing personal." "The Times?" "Oh no, the government."

His loyalty to Blair reached its peak during the Hutton inquiry. Journalists tasked with reporting the day's events would return to the office to find Tom passionately downplaying the day's most damning revelation: "It's just not a story. It's not a story." When Blair and Campbell were vindicated, so was Tom Baldwin.

His new role with Ed Miliband is apparently yet to be defined. Some reports are that his position will be primarily strategic. Don't believe it. Tom has good political antennae, but he is no blue-skies thinker. He will not be able to rise above the fray.

Ed has selected a spin doctor of the old school. He will want to roll up his sleeves and get stuck in where the bullets and briefings are flying. Tom Baldwin will shoot first and ask questions when the next election's over.

Most importantly, he will bring some fire and fury to Team Ed. At last.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.