Watching Ed Miliband, I had a strange new feeling: I think it's called "hope"

. . . and it only got better when I saw Grant Shapps, president of the unofficial second job society, squirming and whimpering on the Daily Politics.

George Monbiot recently suggested that journalists should be more accountable and declare interests. I will take this a step further and declare a lack of interest. It is a lack of interest in Ed Miliband and Labour, which has been steadily increasing over the last three years and recently has verged on catatonia. Imagine my surprise, then, at finding myself gripped by his speech today.

Not only did he suggest bold, decisive and positive solutions to the way in which the Labour party interacts with unions, appearing to be on the front foot finally on this issue, but he took the opportunity to make radical – if still rather general – proposals on MPs having second jobs and declared interests, and a cap on individual party donations. I experienced a very strange and unfamiliar feeling in the pit of my stomach. Initially I mistook it for indigestion, but it turned out to be hope for the future.

Over the last few days, as the debate meandered on about events in Falkirk, very little could be heard over the shrill, disingenuous crowing of Tory grandees and the distinctive heavy vehicle beeping of Labour backing up. There was much speculation about what the correct strategic manoeuvre might be; how the damage might be minimised for the party; whether this move or that move constituted a more elegant method of political suicide.

There was very little discussion about what was the right thing to do. There was very little analysis of whether there was something to UNITE’s stated aim of getting more working people into Parliament – however warped the method of achieving it became in Falkirk. In truth, the aim of getting a more diverse cross section of representation into the House of Commons is something we should all be demanding of the leaders of all political parties.

The 650 people who vote for legislation which impacts our lives should be a representative sample of the UK – not a representative sample of a W1 private members’ club. The fact that a union representing millions of workers would be reduced to Machiavellian politicking and backroom dodgy deals to achieve that should give us all pause for thought. As a symptom of the disease; not a proxy for it.

That we have a system in which Andrew Lansley – while Shadow Health Secretary – can accept a substantial private donation from the wife of the owner of one of the biggest private healthcare providers and make it a non-issue by simply declaring it, should be a cause for general concern. That Tim Yeo, a former Environment Minister, can earn more than twice his MP's salary from green energy firms, while chairing the Energy and Climate Change Parliamentary Committee, should be a source of general outrage.

My feeling of hope was confirmed by the spectacle of Grant Shapps, president of the unofficial second job society, squirming and whimpering on BBC2’s Daily Politics. He put me in mind of Bill Paxton’s character in Aliens, looking at his motion radar, whining “Eight metres. Seven metres. That’s inside this room. This can’t be happening, man. Game over, man. GAME OVER.” Questioned repeatedly about MPs having outside jobs (under any pseudonym cough-Michael-Green-cough) and about a cap on donations, all he could say was: “That’s not what this row was about; actually not the issue today at all; it’s about rigging elections; not donations.” Yet another politician apparently confusing what they were briefed on with what is important.

Of course, the devil is in the detail, many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip, don’t count your chickens before they hatch, actions speak louder than words; a multitude of bumper-sticker caveats apply. However, one must applaud the general thrust of what Ed Miliband had to say today. Whatever my opinion of him, whatever my feelings about the union movement, whatever I think of the Labour Party, whether I think this is the smart move politically or not, I feel I owe him a big fat “thank you” for putting these issues back on the agenda. Especially so, when he does it at considerable political and financial risk.

Ultimately, our survival as a civilised society will not be determined by the odd specific policy, or by poll ratings, or Wimbledon Championships. It will be determined by whether there are people at the top willing to contemplate the previously not-thought-of, say the previously unutterable, debate the taboo and consider changes in areas seen as sacrosanct. It is an attitude as vital in opposition as it is in government. And I believe politicians are either the sort that will stick their head above the parapet or won’t. I may vehemently disagree with Miliband on a multitude of issues, but at least I now know which of the two he is.

[Editor's Note: This piece was amended at 12.52pm on 10 July 2013. An incorrect reference to Tim Yeo earning money from the Renewable Energy Association was removed, as this position is unpaid.]

Grant Shapps: They're coming through the walls! Montage: Dan Murrell

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Getty
Show Hide image

Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.