The Tories think they can flush out Ed's inner red

Part of the strategy behind the land-grab on the "moral economy" is to nudge the Labour leader into

The fair capitalism debate that has rumbled on throughout this week looks likely to continue into the next one.

Business Secretary Vince Cable is delivering a speech on Tuesday on the subject of executive pay. (The coalition thinks some of it is too high, or rather, it isn't adequately indexed to commercial success.) Cable is speaking at an event hosted by the Social Market Foundation think tank, although Chuka Umunna, shadow Business Secretary, is trying to force Vince to announce his plans in parliament first. Umunna raised a point of order with the Speaker on Wednesday on the grounds that it is - as John Bercow has himself made clear in the past - bad form for ministers to bypass the House when presenting new policy.

It's a small point, but then parliamentary point-scoring is one of the few ways the opposition can have any impact at all. Trying to make Cable give an account of himself in parliament is a sensible tactical gambit since the Commons chamber is always a less forgiving environment than, well, anywhere really. Especially for Lib Dems.

Cable is quite a threat to Labour on this topic. His speech to the Lib Dem party conference last year covered a lot of the themes that are now established in the cannon of "responsible capitalism" rhetoric. And that was a week before Ed Miliband made his famous (at least to political obsessives) predators v producers speech at the Labour conference in Liverpool. Committed students of Vincology will know that his book - The Storm - concluded with a call for conscientious liberal reforms to capitalism in order to head off a populist attack from the far left and far right in the aftermath of the banking crisis.

Cable is also the only politician who can out-boast Ed Miliband when it comes to standing up to Rupert Murdoch - it is a badge of honour they both sport ostentatiously as evidence of their willingness to take on "vested interests".

As I wrote in my column this week, the Lib Dems badly need to be associated with something popular that the coalition is doing. Bashing bankers - a topic on which Vince has form - very much fits that bill.

The Tories, meanwhile, are playing a slightly different game. They are motivated chiefly by the need to close the "fair capitalism" subject down as a political playground for Ed Miliband. As I wrote in the column, Downing Street thinks it has enough material on responsibility and fairness in the Cameroon archive (going back to the brand decontamination "modernising" days) to persuade people that the prime minister has been into this stuff for years and that, by extension, it is not the exclusive property of the Labour leader.

But I now gather there is more to the strategy than a simple policy wardrobe raid. People close to Cameron are persuaded that Miliband's instincts are substantially to the left of his public pronouncements. The thinking in Number 10 is that, with a bit of pressure for ownership of this new centre ground, where it is fashionable to decry the ugly side of capitalism, Miliband can be nudged into a more fundamentalist stance. Part of the thinking behind Cameron's "moral markets" speech yesterday was to draw a dividing line between those who want capitalism to work better and those who think it is really a scam from top to bottom, with Labour on the wrong side. Cameron and Osborne want to maneouvre the Labour leader into a position where he sounds not pro-reform but anti-market. The Tories don't just want to expropriate Miliband, they want to drive him off into a tent by St Paul's.

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

0800 7318496