Margaret Curran will struggle against the SNP

The new Shadow Scotland Secretary is a dogged campaigner, but better candidates have been overlooked

Margaret Curran, MP for Glasgow East, has replaced Ann McKechin as Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland following Ed Miliband's first front bench reshuffle as leader of the Labour Party.

Curran served in the Scottish Parliament for 12 years between 1999 and 2011, rising to national prominence in 2008 when she lost a crucial by-election to the SNP -- a moment which, for many, marked the beginning of the end of Gordon Brown's premiership.

Curran's record as a dogged grassroots campaigner and opponent of independence ensures her appointment will be popular with Scottish Labour's activist base, which is desperate to take on a nationalist party still riding high in the polls six months after their momentous victory in the Holyrood elections.

At the same time, however, she represents a gamble for Labour. Her history of awkward gaffes and poor debate performances could put the party at a disadvantage in the run up to the forthcoming independence referendum, as well as at the 2012 Glasgow City Council elections, which the SNP believes it can win. Further, her close association with the failures of outgoing Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray (she helped write the party's May manifesto) will leave her exposed to nationalist accusations of incompetence, tribalism and negativity.

So why Curran? The role of the Shadow Scotland Secretary is going to be hugely important over the coming months and years as the Unionist parties try to upset Alex Salmond's bid to break-up Britain, yet Labour's most talented Scots, Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander, appear wholly reluctant to take up the challenge.

One possible explanation for their reticence is that they know the First Minster does not poll well with woman and were as such happy to see another woman promoted to the position after McKechin. Another is that they are simply more interested in furthering their Westminster ambitions than in spending the next three years engaged in a bitter, arduous debate about Scotland's constitutional future.

But even with Murphy and Alexander unavailable or unwilling, there were other, perhaps better equipped, candidates waiting in the wings. 30-year-old Gemma Doyle, MP for West Dumbartonshire, has shown promise since she entered parliament at the last General Election, as has Gregg McClymont, a 35-year-old former Oxford history don who represents Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (read his New Statesman profile here).

In reality, though, there is probably a more prosaic reason behind Curran's promotion: the old Scottish Labour career structure ensures that loyal party servants are justly rewarded. Labour's next leader in Scotland will certainly have his or her work cut out in dragging their comrades into the 21st century.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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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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