Danny Alexander at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Danny Alexander says OBR could audit Labour's manifesto

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury contradicts Osborne and says the idea is "well worth further consideration".

From the moment Ed Balls proposed allowing the OBR to audit Labour's tax and spending commitments (and those of other parties), the Tories sought to strangle the idea at birth. Sajid Javid, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, declared: "Ed Balls knows this is not allowed under the Budget Responsibility Act and the OBR's charter, so this is just a stunt to try and distract attention from the fact that Labour have been found out for making unfunded commitments that would just mean more borrowing and more debt.

"Nothing has changed - it's the same old Labour. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls still want more spending, more borrowing, and more debt - exactly how they got us into this mess in the first place. And it's hardworking people who would pay the price through higher taxes and higher mortgage rate."

The Tories' decision to torpedo the plan, which would require legislation, was entirely politically motivated. David Cameron and George Osborne intend to run an election campaign based on Labour's "black hole" and are determined to prevent anything that would allow the opposition to enhance its fiscal credibility. Back in October 2010, Osborne said that the possibility of OBR auditing was "a legitimate matter for the House to debate and decide". Yet a debate is precisely what he has refused to allow by rejecting the idea out of hand. 

But with the Chancellor away in Brussels, Balls seized the opportunity to question Danny Alexander on the subject at Treasury Questions today. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury may have been accused by his fellow Lib Dems of "going native" ("rather than meeting Danny we just ask for the Treasury 'lines' - it's quicker," one Lib Dem adviser told me recently) but today he contradicted his master by declaring that it was "an idea well worth further consideration" since "the British people need to know that what every party says is what it means". Balls, who has previously won the endorsement of Treasury select committee chair Andrew Tyrie, replied: "[T]here was some encouragement there, I would urge him, this once, on this one issue, to try and persuade the Chancellor to take a different view. Try and persuade the Chancellor this once to change his mind, to do the right thing, vote in the Finance Bill for this important change. It can be done, it should be done, let not the Liberal Democrats be a road block to this important reform."

It will probably take more than Danny Alexander to persuade Osborne to think again, but Balls's success in exposing this coalition divide leaves the Chancellor in a more awkward position. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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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