The coalition gears up for a fight on public sector pensions

Danny Alexander defends plans to make workers work longer and pay more.

Unbowed by the threat of mass strike action, the government is continuing its drive to reform public sector pensions. Danny Alexander has been on the airwaves this morning defending plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 66 in 2020 and to increase workers' contributions by an average of 3.2 per cent. In an article for the Telegraph, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury writes: "It is unjustifiable that the taxpayer should work longer and pay more tax so that public sector workers can retire earlier and get more than them."

However, in an attempt to sweeten the pill, Alexander has announced that those earning less than £15,000 a year will not face any contribution increases while those earning under £18,000 will have the increase capped at 1.5 per cent. In addition, the increase will be phased in over three years from next April, taking into account the two-year public sector pay freeze.

But the risk remains that many average earners, already facing the steepest fall in living standards since the 1920s, will quit their pensions rather than pay more. As Unison general secretary Dave Prentis remarked: "[T]hose on above £18,000 a year who will see their contributions increase by much more than 50 per cent. These days £18,000 is not a huge amount and this will affect lots of public sector workers, including nurses and social workers." Yet given that the cost to the taxpayer is due to rise from £4bn a year at present to £9bn a year by 2015, ministers believe that they are on the right side of the argument.

In the meantime, the debate over whether the government should tighten existing anti-strike laws continues. Unlike Boris Johnson, who has called for the introduction of a 50 per cent threshold for strikes, ministers currently believe that there is no need to change the law, although in his Telegraph article Alexander pointedly notes that: "Only one in five members of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union voted on Wednesday for strike action - the vast majority realise that such a step is unjustifiable."

But it's another Lib Dem, employment minister Ed Davey, who has offered the clearest argument yet against new anti-union legislation. In a speech at the National Liberal Club he warned that changing the law would be "antagonistic and inflammatory", adding that it would "play into the hands of the militants" and undermine moderate union leaders.

All the same, Davey went on to remark that "it's also not as Boris Johnson would have you believe, that the Lib Dems are lily-livered. If there's a case for taking action, we'll take action." Everyone, it seems, wants to keep all options on the table.

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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