Miliband backs* Clegg on Lords reform - up to a point

Labour's strategy is to avoid intruding on internal coalition grief when the Tories savage another L

An intriguing development on House of Lords reform is reported in today's Independent. Labour MPs might be whipped in favour of Nick Clegg's plans when they come before the Commons. That would be a change of position or, rather, a climbing down off the fence.

Ed Miliband has been wary of throwing the Lib Dems any kind of lifeline. Lords reform has all the potential to be a catastrophe for Clegg. The detail hasn't been worked out properly, the Tories hate the whole thing as, naturally, do peers from all sides who might be made unemployed if the plan to have 80 per cent of Lords elected goes through.

The line coming from Miliband's office has, until now, been that 80 per cent is a shabby compromise on the 100 per cent level that would make for a fully democratic upper chamber. Comparison is drawn with the disastrous campaign to change the electoral system on the basis of the Alternative Vote - another compromise (notoriously once denounced by Clegg himself as "shabby") that failed to animate the passions of dedicated constitutional reformers. That episode ended in disaster for Clegg.

Privately, Miliband aides were more blunt. Clegg is in a hole, they would say, it isn't Labour's job to fish him out. That attitude is now shifting. But not much.

The main thing that has changed is the prospect of a massive rebellion by Tory MPs against Lords reform - possibly on a scale equivalent to the backbench revolt last year on a European Union referendum. Clegg knows that it will be difficult getting his plans past the House of Lords itself, but a defeat in the Commons would be disastrous for him personally and for coalition relations. As I wrote recently, the suspicion among Lib Dems would be that the rebellion was discreetly sanctioned by Number 10. Such is the parlous state of trust between the two governing partners.

The view has clearly been taken at the top of the Labour party that Clegg's plan should at least have a decent chance of clearing its first legislative hurdle. That doesn't mean Miliband wants the plan to succeed, only that he would rather not have his MPs be the direct agents of its defeat. The coalition can divide itself over Lords reform quite happily without Labour's help and Miliband wants to retain the capacity to say, in any future campaign or coalition negotiation, that he supported the principle of a more democratic parliament.

This would be a shrewd move that suggests lessons have been learned from Labour's divided and counter-productive treatment of the AV referendum. The only things the opposition achieved in that campaign were diminishing their own leader's authority (since half of the Labour party campaigned for a "No" vote, while Miliband said "Yes") and bolstering the Tories who were cock-a-hoop about the resounding rejection of electoral reform.

I don't sense much enthusiasm for Lords reform on the Labour benches. MPs on all sides (including some Lib Dems) worry about the potential for elected peers, free from the burden of constituency duties, swaggering around parlaiment claiming authority over hard-working Commoners. The possibility that Labour MPs could be whipped into the lobbies with Lib Dems doesn't indicate much of a rapprochement between the two parties. It does suggest that Miliband is thinking a bit more strategically about how to manage the relationship.

What it call comes down to is whether the coalition will start to unravel, when it might happen and how ready Labour will be to offer consolation. From Miliband's point of view it is vital that, should the battle over Lords reform turn nasty, Lib Dems' sense of betrayal by the Tories is undiluted by equivalent resentment of Labour.

*Update: A source in the Labour leader's office clarifies (or rather unclarifies) that no final decision has been made on what exactly Labour's attitude will be to a Lib Dem Bill on Lords reform. The Indie story was, it seems, a bit of a kite-flying exercise. The plan is still being worked out. Officially, Labour still thinks the Lords should be 100 per cent elected but "nothing is being ruled out". At the same time, my source wanted to make clear that "no olive branches" were being extended to Clegg. Hmm. So as with so many things, this aspect of Labour strategy is a work in progress.

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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