Nigel Farage. Photo: Getty
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Pricking the Ukip bubble, the Baftas’ gender agenda, and the real lesson of the Chinese maths scores

Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

Almost nobody seems to have noticed, but the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election has surely pricked the Ukip bubble. Labour increased its vote share to 55.3 per cent from 44.1 per cent in the general election. Ukip got a mere 18 per cent. That has been the pattern throughout this parliament. In eight of the 13 by-elections in England, Labour got more than half the vote. Only in Eastleigh, where the incumbent, the Lib Dem Chris Huhne, resigned in disgrace, did Ukip manage more than 25 per cent. In nine contests, its vote was below 15 per cent. And only in Bradford West did Labour stumble badly, losing to George Galloway.

Ukip had a chance to take over from the Lib Dems as the main vehicle for protest. Yet at a time when mainstream politicians are supposedly more out of touch and despised than ever, it has achieved nothing like the spectacular by-election swings that the Lib Dems (and, before them, the Liberals and the SDP) achieved in their heyday. It has barely 1 per cent of local council seats. It may do well in the European elections because voters don’t care who represents them in Brussels and Strasbourg. But clearly they won’t risk a Ukip “fruitcake” getting anywhere near real power.

The by-elections were not representative; nearly all were in safe Labour seats. Nevertheless, it seems that, if protest votes are going anywhere in this parliament, they are going to Labour, whose vote (discounting Bradford West) has risen by an average of 9 per cent – a remarkable and perhaps unprecedented achievement for a party recently ejected from office.

Can the established parties now stop trimming their policies to counter the Ukip “threat”? Can we see less of Nigel Farage and his acolytes on BBC1’s Question Time panel? Can assorted liberals and leftists stop warning of a Europe-wide fascist revival? Don’t hold your breath.


Eyes on the prize

I find all awards ceremonies, including those for journalists, irritating because they amount to little more than marketing and PR events. Why they should take up hours of prime-time TV, I have no idea. The Baftas, like the Oscars, I find particularly annoying. Why are there awards for “actresses” rather than just “actors”? Aren’t we supposed to be in the age of gender-neutral terms? The answer, I suppose, is that, if the “actress” awards were abolished, there would be fewer prizes and fewer sponsorship opportunities.


Do the sums

The press is excited by news that in maths tests, the children of factory workers and cleaners in Shanghai outperform the children of professional parents in the UK. Yet those lowly Shanghai children also do better than the children of well-heeled parents in the US, France, Canada, New Zealand, Denmark and even Finland, normally regarded as the European star in league tables of educational performance. The children of German professionals are only just ahead and those of Japanese and Dutch professionals are roughly on a par.

Shanghai is a city of about 23 million people, of whom more than a third have migrated there (mostly from rural areas) since the turn of the century. Most of the city’s school pupils are from migrant families. Probably the only legitimate comparison is with children of Chinese origin in London schools; Chinese pupils are known to have easily the highest exam results of any ethnic group in the UK and, by an even greater margin, the highest rate of progression to post-school education.

Elizabeth Truss, Michael Gove’s ministerial sidekick at the Department for Education, is off to China, babbling about threats to “our productivity and growth”. But is she sure that the answer lies in Shanghai’s schools?

If we need high-achieving young mathematicians, perhaps we should look at our immigration policy and, at least in China’s case, stop issuing work permits only to the skilled. The more unskilled Chinese factory workers and cleaners we have, the better. If you can’t beat them, get them to join us, a rule followed by the English cricket and rugby teams.


Continental shift

In London at the Natural History Museum’s riveting new exhibition “Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story”, I learned several new things. Here is one. I knew that about 2 per cent of Neanderthal genes can be found in modern human beings. I didn’t know that, though such genes are found in people of European and Asian origin, they are not found in Africans, whose ancestors never left that continent.

I am still turning over in my mind how this may affect popular perceptions of ethnic differences and their significance.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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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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