Flooded out: Blackett Close in Staines-Upon-Thames. Photo: Getty
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Leader: As this winter’s floods remind us, climate change matters

In the short term, ministers will rightly focus on addressing the immediate threat to homes and lives. Once this danger has passed, we all have a duty to ensure that the UK is better able to live with and withstand the consequences of climate change.

In recent times, our political leaders have given the impression that they regard climate change as a matter of marginal importance. When David Cameron was first elected as leader of the Conservative Party, he used to claim that to “vote blue” was to “go green”. He now reportedly vows to “get rid of all the green crap”. Nearly four years after entering Downing Street, the Prime Minister has yet to make a major speech about climate change or attend a UN environmental summit.

Emboldened by his silence, Conservative climate-change deniers have rushed to fill the void. The energy minister Michael Fallon has compared global warming to “theology” and the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, has declared: “People get very emotional about this subject and I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries.” (Nine of the ten warmest years have occurred since 1998.)

For his part, the Chancellor, George Osborne, encouraged by his intellectual mentor Nigel Lawson, has repeatedly posited a false choice between growth and green investment, clumsily arguing that saving the planet “shouldn’t cost the earth”. Even Ed Miliband, a former climate change secretary and a committed environmentalist, now rarely mentions the subject in his speeches and interventions. The common view in Westminster is that it is not a priority in an era of squeezed living standards.

Yet, as the Met Office’s chief scientist, Julia Slingo, said of the extreme weather that has caused the floods in the south of England, “All the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change. There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events.”

Politicians cannot control the weather but this banality should not obscure the fundamental truth that the decisions they have taken have left Britain less prepared than it should be. Against the advice of scientists, who warned of the increased risk of flooding because of climate change, the government has cut real-terms spending on flood defences every year since 2010. This year, it will reduce the budget for the Environment Agency by 15 per cent and remove 550 staff working on flooding. Over the same period, it has ended the obligation for local authorities to prepare climate adaptation plans and has cut the number of officials responsible for the issue in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from 38 to just six. All of these decisions were justified under the government’s deficit-reduction plan, but as Mr Cameron’s surprise declaration that “money is no object” (isn’t Britain “bankrupt”?) demonstrates, they have proved to be a false economy.

In the short term, ministers will rightly focus on addressing the immediate threat to homes and lives. Once this danger has passed, we all have a duty to ensure that the UK is better able to live with and withstand the consequences of climate change. Within the next decade, the UK faces the prospect of food shortages, more floods, extreme heatwaves and mass refugee flows. As the events of recent days show, a strategy for managing climate change is also a strategy for defending living standards.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.