Clegg dials up differentiation

Wounded over Europe, the Lib Dems are accelerating their strategy for looking and sounding unlike To

The Liberal Democrats are fighting back after a grim couple of weeks. Watching David Cameron pursue the most eurosceptic foreign policy for a generation and get an opinion poll bounce out of it was about as pleasurable an experience for Nick Clegg's party as seeing prospects for electoral reform killed off for a generation in May. That also coincided with a poll boost for the Tories.

The Lib Dems are seriously at risk of winding up in a situation where their defining policy positions are best remembered as the ones they were forced to abandon for the sake of coalition. Clegg knows his party's patience is wearing thin. The last few weeks have been "wounding", according to a senior aide.

The Lib Dem strategy has been to spend a period of time demonstrating that coalition could work - reassuring markets and voters alike that the two partners were committed for the long haul. Then, there would be a period of "differentiation", in which the junior partner sought to carve out some identity with distinctive policy positions, and finally "separation" ahead of a general election.

I'm told that the humiliation over Europe has been taken by Clegg as a licence to "dial up differentiation". It started with a semi-choreographed tantrum over David Cameron's veto of a new EU treaty. On Sunday, Vince Cable was on TV saying that the government would be implementing in full recommendations made by the Vickers Commission on banking regulation (in fact this is a coalition compromise position, but the fact that the Lib Dem Business Secretary got to announce it first counts as a mini-concession). And today Nick Clegg is making a speech in which he derides a cherished policy of the Tory right - the idea of promoting marriage with tax concessions. He also distances himself from Cameron's "Big Society" vision, preferring a liberal "Open Society" variant. There is even going to be a renewed Lib Dem push for House of Lords reform.

After the AV fiasco, Clegg's team had decided to tone down the party's enthusiasm for constitutional reform on the grounds that no-one cared apart from a tiny handful of reformist fanatics and they were the people most likely to be dismayed by Lib Dem compromises and defeat.

The fact that Clegg has gone back to the constitution is revealing in two ways. First, it is one of a few areas where there is some natural coincidence of interest with the Labour party. Lords reform is a test ground for future possible collaboration - feelers have already tentatively been put out. Second, driving through Lords reform would provide an answer to a crucial question for the Lib Dems when they are feeling marginalised by coalition: "What have the Tories been forced to do that they might not have done anyway?"

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former 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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