Liam Byrne fights for his job with crowd-pleasing speech

After months of rumours that he's set for the chop, the shadow work and pensions secretary threw blow after blow at the Tories.

Liam Byrne is not going down without a fight. After months of rumours that he's set for the chop in the forthcoming reshuffle, the shadow work and pensions secretary delivered an unusually fiery speech that rivalled Len McCluskey's on the decibel meter.

Byrne, one of "the Blairites" that McCluskey suggested in his interview with me should be ignored or sacked, threw numerous crowd-pleasing blows at the Tories. He declared that "young people fighting for work in East Birmingham have got a damn sight more grit than you need to get through Eton College", assailed Michael Gove for "blaming the poor for the temerity to turn up at a food bank" ("he should be ashamed") and remarked of Iain Duncan Smith: "They say to err is human. But if you want someone to really screw it up you send for Iain Duncan Smith. And Conference that's why we need to fire him."

After Ed Miliband's announcement on the bedroom tax on Friday, Byrne was able to proudly declare that Labour would repeal the measure, a pledge that he had long pushed for against a sceptical Ed Balls. Again seeking to win over those on the Labour left for whom he has become something of a hate figure, he said: "And I say to David Cameron, Atos are a disgrace, you should sack them and sack them now. And yes Conference we say the Bedroom Tax should be axed and axed now and if David Cameron won't drop this hated tax, then we will repeal it."

Whether this is enough for Byrne to stay in his post remains doubtful. The view among many in the party is that if Labour is to reach a position on welfare that both its MPs and the electorate can live with, then it is essential for Miliband to appoint a shadow work and pensions secretary who is more trusted by backbenchers. Just as only Nixon could go to China, so only a less "Blairite" figure can sell Labour's new position on welfare to a sceptical PLP. Others points out that his continued presence on the frontbench provides the Tories with repeated opportunities to remind voters of his infamous "I'm afraid there is no money" note. In the words of one MP, "it is the gift that keeps giving."

With Miliband keen to promote "the new generation", and avoid his government looking like a set of New Labour retreads, Byrne remains one of those likely to be asked to make way. Rachel Reeves, who has long been in line for a promotion, and who is one of the party's sharpest economic brains, is the most obvious candidate to replace him.

Liam Byrne delivers his speech at the Labour conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.