Three open goals for Labour - and a trap

Labour is in a strong position so long as it avoids mixed messages and leaves the cuts unmentioned.

Perhaps Ed Miliband is a lucky general after all. After the huge political windfall of Hackgate, the riots have fallen into his lap. While they are a disaster for the country and the communities they have afflicted, for Labour they present a huge opportunity.

Essentially, Ed and his team stand in front of three open goals. All they need to do is boot the ball, straight ahead, and they'll have David Cameron in trouble.

The first open goal is marked "competence". A weak initial police response and the incredible situation where May, Cameron, Clegg, Boris and Osborne were all abroad at once, Cameron stands a few screw-ups away from being the new John Major. The public secretly suspect that most politicians are useless and won't take much persuading to put Dave in that column for his uncertain response to the riots.

The second is marked "out of touch". Cameron and Boris -- and most of the Cabinet -- are millionaires. Their inexplicable failure to respond to the crises by coming home from their foreign holidays brings this line of political attack into play and can be done without the crass "they're all rich boys" line, which smacks of class envy.Yet another PR disaster by a man whose only job outside politics was running the PR operation of a TV firm, whose name was a byword for bad programming when he was working there.

The third is labelled "police numbers". Forcing Cameron to defend his cuts to police numbers will put him on the back foot and dismay his own supporters. Over and over again, Labour politicians must ask: why did David Cameron want to cut police numbers? Labour is fortunate that, at this moment, it has a forensic and forceful shadow home secretary in Yvette Cooper who can mix the policy work with the campaigning efforts to ensure that Labour MPs and activists can take the battle to the Tories at local level.

So far, so obvious. Yet for these attacks to hit home, Labour must forswear any mention of the cuts in any debate on the riots.

Voters look at the mobs and just know that these are not people who are gutted at the closure of the local library or youth centre. Even if the cuts were to blame -- something which would be impossible to prove -- Labour shouldn't make the case for reversing them just because a few thousand unpleasant and selfish people had been emboldened by TV pictures of weak policing to go out and do some early -- and free -- Christmas shopping. To the ears of decent, law-abiding middle class and working class Britain, that sounds like an appeal for Danegeld: pay more tax so we can buy off the boys and girls in the masks, or JD Sports gets it (again).

For an example of how not to do it, Labour politicians should watch Harriet Harman's disastrous encounter with Michael Gove on Newsnight last night. As an MP for a London seat which had seen some trouble, Harriet should have wiped the floor with Gove on competence, police numbers and being out of touch. Instead, while she strongly denounced the riots and looting, and said there was no excuse for the looting, she raised cuts and deficit reduction, muddying the waters -- and Gove floored her. An interview that she should have walked ended with Harriet on the defensive. Fortunately this was only Newsnight, so not many people would have been watching -- although the quotes will have been salted away by the Tories, you can bet on that.

Above all, it was an example of what can happen when you try to mix your messages. There will be plenty of opportunities to press the economic attack in the months ahead -- along with a few opportunities to refine it. But as far as the riots are concerned, from Labour shadow ministers, MPs and councillors, we now need discipline.

 

David Mills was a special adviser at the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury from 2009-10 and produced the GMTV Sunday Programme for eight years.

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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.