PMQs review: Cameron tries to blame Labour for the living standards crisis

Rather than following Osborne and denying that living standards are falling, Cameron sought to hold the last Labour government responsible.

George Osborne's recent response to claims of a "cost-of-living crisis" by Labour has been to deny that there is one. In his Autumn Statement last week, the Chancellor boasted that, on his preferred measure, living standards were rising. He was duly rebuked by the IFS, which said that Osborne's metric "should certainly not be used in isolation" and confirmed that real incomes had fallen by around £1,600 since May 2010.

When Ed Miliband made this point to David Cameron at today's PMQs, Cameron's response was striking. Rather than quibbling with the figures, he conceded that "household incomes" had fallen but argued that this was not surprising after "the biggest recession in 100 years". In other words: blame Labour. He declared of Miliband: "His entire approach seems to be 'we made this almighty mess, why are they taking so long to clear it up'– well, we are clearing it up!" But while this line might have been effective in 2010, it is likely to be less so after three and a half years of the coalition (as Miliband noted). Conversely, blaming the living standards crisis on the last government, rather than denying it altogether, is undoubtedly a better approach for Cameron (whose biggest weakness is being seen as "out-of-touch" by voters) to take.

Miliband went on to press Cameron on his hint, in an interview with the Spectator, that the top rate of tax could be reduced from 45p to 40p under a Conservative majority government. The PM sharply replied that the top rate was still higher than in any year of the last Labour government but notably refused to deny that he hopes to cut it.  The possibility of Labour going into the next election proposing to reintroduce the 50p rate, while the Tories plan to reduce it to 40p, shows how much ideological ground is opening up between the two parites.

In response to Miliband's earlier questions on MPs' pay, ahead of IPSA's expected recommendation of an 11% rise tomorrow, Cameron went significantly further than before and said that unless ISPSA "thinks again", he "wouldn't rule anything out". When asked after the session whether this meant he would be prepared to scrap the body and hand control of MPs' pay back to parliament, the PM's spokesman said: "You've got his words. He's ruling nothing out." After being caught flat-footed by Miliband earlier this week (who called for cross-party talks on the issue), it now seems that Cameron will find some way to ensure the rise does not go through.

David Cameron makes his way to Downing Street from the Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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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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