Huhne: Cameron’s No will prove a pyrrhic victory

Energy Secretary warns PM that the genie of electoral reform won’t go back in the bottle.

Chris Huhne has an interesting op-ed in the Independent on Sunday today. The conventional wisdom has it that the result of Thursday's referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) has extinguished the hopes of electoral reformers for a generation.

Huhne certainly thinks AV is "dead and buried", but he refuses to accept that the cause of reform was snuffed out last week. On the contrary: "When change comes, as it will, it is likely to be more radical."

He rightly points out that the deep structural defects in the British electoral system, to which AV would have been only a partial remedy, remain and will continue to sap political legitimacy in this country.

The problems to which electoral reformers are responding have not gone away and will continue to demand an answer. British society is increasingly pluralist, and the trend to diversity is accelerating. In the Fifties, only 4 per cent of voters rejected Labour and the Tories. Now the figure is a third. Once Labour and the Conservatives dominated our politics. Now Liberal Democrats, Greens, Nationalists and others demand a voice.

The attempt to squeeze diversity into the fraying corset of two-party politics is likely to lead to more and more unfair results. Already, the regional representation of the parties is distorted, with the Tories under-represented in the north and Scotland despite substantial votes, and Labour similarly anorexic in the south. Both parties speak first to their regional bases, respectively ignoring urban deprivation and aspirational affluence.

And the success of the SNP in Scotland makes things even more volatile. Huhne describes Alex Salmond's victory in the Scottish elections as a further "lurch towards diversity" that the success of the No campaign in the referendum on AV will do nothing to halt, let alone reverse. And were Salmond somehow to win a referendum on Scottish independence, Huhne goes on, electoral reform would be forced on England:

The Conservative Party is so strong in England that our-first-past-the-post system tends to give it English majorities even more often than British ones. Without Scotland, the Tories would have an overall majority now, plus another two since the war. Scottish independence would force electoral reform just to avoid incessant Tory governments in England.

For Kremlinologists, the most striking part of the article comes towards the end, when Huhne warns his cabinet colleague David Cameron to learn the lessons of history:

The Conservative Party only embraces constitutional change after it has happened, but it is very likely that [David Cameron's] very personal big No will prove a Pyrrhic victory. The lessons of Irish Home Rule are clear. By resisting even the smallest improvement in our constitutional arrangements, the Conservatives set Ireland on course to the 1916 Easter rising and independence. The rejection of the Alternative Vote, combined with the rise of the SNP, is going to put our political system under unprecedented strain. The failure to release pressure means that the tectonic plates will eventually move further and faster. History shows that the Whigs were right. The world must change if it is to stay the same.

There was also a shifting of "tectonic plates", to borrow Huhne's metaphor, around the cabinet table last week, of course. But he insists (as did Nick Clegg on The Andrew Marr Show this morning) that the unpleasantness of the AV campaign, which pittedcCabinet colleagues against each other, hasn't undermined the coalition: "You do not give up on a business contract just because you catch your partner indulging in sharp practice, but there will inevitably be more formality and an insistence on proper procedure."

Clegg was singing from the same hymn sheet. He told Marr: "There's a lot of heat in an election campaign but we move on. It's not a merger or a marriage between two political parties." We can expect to hear that line a lot in the next few weeks as the Lib Dem leadership tries to placate the party rank and file.

As for Huhne, it looks as if he is going nowhere – for the time being at least.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture 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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