PMQs review: Miliband's New Statesman jibe backfires

After claiming that Cameron was "scraping the barrel" by quoting the NS, the Labour leader was promptly reminded that it endorsed his leadership.

Without wishing to appear unduly solipsistic, it was the New Statesman that was the subject of the most memorable exchange at today's PMQs. After Ed Miliband assailed David Cameron over the loss of Britain's AAA credit rating, the PM retorted that the NS ("the in-house magazine of the Labour Party") had written of the Labour leader's approach: 

His critique of the government strategy will never win back public trust, his proposals for the economy will never convince, his credibility problem will only become magnified as the general election approaches.

The quote in question was adapted from Anthony Seldon's open letter to Ed Balls in last week's issue (not an NS editorial as Cameron implied) calling for the shadow chancellor to "fall on his sword" and it prompted this ungenerous response from the Labour leader: "I think he's scraping the barrel by quoting the New Statesman."
 
Thanks, Ed. (P.S. We hope you like our new logo). After a swift prompt from George Osborne, Cameron went on to remind Miliband that the NS was "the only newspaper that endorsed his leadership bid" (the People excepted), leaving the Labour leader looking rather foolish. By dismissing Cameron's NS quote out of hand, Miliband fell into a Tory trap.
 
Up to this point, the session had been dominated by last week's credit downgrade, with Miliband noting just how much store Cameron and Osborne once set by the retention of AAA. But to the inevitable riposte from the PM - "it's his policy to address excessive borrowing by borrowing more!" - Miliband could only fall back on the stock reply that 'I ask the questions". "Anytime he wants to swap places, I'll answer him," said Miliband. 
 
What should worry Labour is that Miliband has yet to settle on a convincing response to the politically potent charge that his party would simply "borrow more". The difference, of course, is that while Labour would borrow for growth (in the form of tax cuts and higher infrastructure spending), the coalition is borrowing to meet the costs of failure (in the form of lower growth and higher long-term unemployment). 
 
The problem for Labour, however, is that Balls and Miliband, aware that voters may not easily accept their distinction between "good" borrowing and "bad" borrowing, are unwilling to make the explicit case for deficit-financed stimulus. Earlier this week, George Osborne, not entirely unconvincingly, ridiculed it as "an economic policy that dares not speak its name".
 
Miliband may quip that he doesn't need to give answers until he's in Cameron place, but if he wants to continue to attack the coalition on this territory, let alone become Prime Minister, he will need to do rather better than that. 

George Eaton is 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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