A Tale of Two Elections

The Republican primaries make good spectator sport and are conveniently conducted in English. The ra

The British media are predictably mesmerised by the US Republican primary campaign and with good reason. It is a fiercely competitive race between colourful candidates. Newt Gingrich's victory in South Carolina puts pressure on Mitt Romney, the front-runner, to deliver a "knockout punch" in Florida.

As political spectator sport goes, this is end-to-end stuff. And, of course, it matters. The winning candidate will run against Barack Obama and so potentially emerge as President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of what remains - until China catches up some time in the next decade or three - the most formidable power in the world. It is worth keeping an eye on who is in the frame for that job.

Still, the US vote that really counts isn't until November. Meanwhile, in our political backyard, campaigning is under way in another presidential poll - in France. The first round of voting is on 22 April. Francois Hollande wants to unseat Nicolas Sarkozy and take back the presidency for the Socialist party first time since 1996. On the fringe, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right National Front, is hoping to repeat the success of her father, Jean-Marie, who stunned the European political establishment by elbowing his way into the second round presidential run-off against Sarkozy in 2002.

France's constitution gives the president extraordinary powers - far more than are wielded by the US head of state, whose hands are often tied by Congress. The country is absolutely central to the diplomacy that is currently going on around attempts to resolve the European single currency debt crisis and the negotiations over wider reforms to the European Union. It shouldn't have to be said that the outcome of a presidential election across the channel matters every bit as much to Britain - and arguably much more - than the outcome of a contest over the Atlantic.

You wouldn't have guessed it from the proportion of attention paid by our media. It is, of course, easier to follow US politics - the Americans conveniently do battle in our native language. But that point of access creates a false sense of cultural and political proximity. Britain's strategic alliance with Washington stays remarkably stable regardless of who is in the White House. It is a partnership built on defence and security collaboration.

By contrast, our economic fortunes could be quite substantially affected by the outcome of European negotiations, which, in turn, are substantially affected by diplomatic relations with the French head of state. The prospect of that job going to the Socialist candidate for the first time in 16 years (who, by the way, is campaigning on a populist anti-Big Finance ticket) merits perhaps more attention than it has thus far earned.

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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