Glasman said what many in Labour are thinking about Ed Miliband

Anxiety in the party about the leader's strategy of creeping up quietly on the coalition is building

"The quiet crisis" was at one point going to be a theme for Ed Miliband's campaign to highlight the consequences of coalition economic policy. The crisis in question was the discreet torment of families that gather around their kitchen table every night wondering how to make ends meet; what expense to spare next. It is a nice phrase, but it now better describes the state of the Labour party under Miliband's leadership.

It isn't a full-blown, noisy crisis with public rows and resignations, doors slamming, crockery breaking. It is a case of MPs, shadow ministers, party members, fellow-travellers in the media all holding their heads in their hands (metaphorically; sometimes literally) and wondering whether the Labour leader can mount a serious challenge to the coalition, let alone win an election at some point.

The collective despond explains, in part, why Lord Glasman's article in this week's New Statesman has received so much attention. It is an interesting critique of Ed Miliband's project, accusing the leader of excessive caution, suggesting he is being held back by deference to figures from the last government (i.e. Ed Balls) and urging some bolder more imaginative action to have an impact in 2012.

But it is the author as much as the analysis that makes it a significant intervention. Glasman was ennobled by Miliband and has been, over the past year, a close advisor. (He is not, nor has ever been, in any meaningful sense of the word, a "guru".) If this is what Ed's friends are saying, just imagine the view among his enemies and rivals. Some of the harsh language in the NS column no doubt expresses the frustration of someone who was once closer to the leader than he is now - a case of political love unrequited. And yet you hear variations on Glasman's theme from many quarters of the party. The prescriptions are always different but the underlying accusation is the same: caution, indecision and a failure to capture the public imagination. The passages of Glasman's column that have been most quoted elsewhere are the ones that express in a public forum what plenty of people in the party are saying in private - including people who think Ed Miliband can't run away from Glasman's "Blue Labour" ideas fast enough. In other words, even people who disagree with the prescription recognise the diagnosis.

The defence from Miliband's team amounts to an elaborate call for patience: the party has bounced back remarkably well from crushing defeat; it is more united than ever before; people are still giving the coalition the benefit of the doubt; the full scale of Tory economic failure hasn't set in yet; the media are hostile. This was all neatly expressed in a New Year strategy memo leaked to the Times, including the memorable lines that Labour has made "the best recovery of any opposition party in the history of opposition parties" and that comparisons between Ed Miliband and William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith or Michael Howard are "wide of the mark".The party would rather such comparisons were donwright impossible.

There is much truth in the analysis underpinning the patience strategy. The party is indeed united and has bounced back from an election drubbing. Labour mostly leads in opinion polls. But the context is peculiar - Labour lost the last election, but the Tories didn't win it. No-one knows how well the party should be doing at this point in the electoral cycle because the coalition (which contains a kind of in-built opposition mechanism in the form of the Lib Dems) is such a political novelty. Unity, meanwhile, has been bought by avoiding difficult choices, especially in the discussion of public spending and how Labour would reform public services.

As for the poll advantage, it melted away when David Cameron grabbed a few populist headlines with his European veto manoeuvre. That confirms to many opposition MPs that what modest lead they have is soft - an expression of distaste for the generally glum state of the nation and not a serious endorsement of Labour as a potential party of government. They'll give Miliband more chances, though. He hasn't yet proved beyond doubt that his strategy of creeping up on the government will fail. The problem is, of course, that the only way you know when a creeping up strategy has failed is when you get right up close and find the enemy saw you coming a mile off. And by then it's too late.

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