Is it a marathon, a sprint or jogging on the spot, Ed?

The Labour leader's strategy relies on voters one day realising that he was right all along. Then re

The Labour leader's strategy relies on voters one day realising that he was right all along. Then rewarding him for it.{C}

The Financial Times has an interview with Ed Miliband this morning, revealing in that it shows the Labour leader unperturbed by his party's apparent failure to break through in opinion polls and confident that voters are swinging in his general direction.

In fact, he tells the FT opinion is "moving significantly towards us" and cites as evidence the fact that David Cameron has had to imitate some of Labour's language about responsibility at the top of society and excessive corporate pay.

Meanwhile, the Labour leader continues to express certainty that, eventually, voters will see that the coalition's economic plans have unravelled and start listening more to the opposition.

I think 2011 was the year when the economic argument has shifted. The government's economic strategy has fallen apart in my view.

Well yes, that is his view and he soldiers on in dogged determination to bring the country round to sharing it. The problem is that Miliband has yet to demonstrate that he has any effective techniques for mass persuasion. By his own admission, Cameron is prepared to ape Labour's potentially popular banker-bashing postures and there is a peculiar complacency in thinking that voters care who said something first. Miliband's strategy seems to be based on an assumption that you can build a wonderful edifice of analytical truth about the failings of the current system and critiques of the incumbent government, so it is all ready to be admired when the electorate deigns to pay attention. I can't think of an example of this approach - build it and they'll come - working in recent political history.

Of course, Labour can take some comfort from the party's fairly easy win in yesterday's by election in Feltham and Heston. I doubt that will stop the frustrated murmuring that is getting louder on the opposition benches. The party's strategic dilemma, or rather its confusion, is neatly encapsulated in one especially odd line from the Miliband interview today:

I always said it would be a long journey to be just a one-term opposition.

Surely if the ambition is to be in opposition for just one term, the journey is, by definition, relatively short. You can just about see his point - there is a lot of work to do in a short space of time. But at the moment it feels as if Labour hasn't decided whether it is running a marathon or a sprint - or maybe just jogging on the spot.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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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.