Ed Miliband visits Standard Life on November, 11, 2013 in Edinburgh. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Miliband ties Salmond to Cameron in attack on "race to the bottom"

The Labour leader uses the Scottish First Minister's weapon of choice against him.

If the Union is to survive, it will be up to Labour save it. With just one MP in Scotland (out of a possible 59), the Conservatives recognise that they cannot speak with authority on the country's future. By contrast, even in the baleful circumstances of the 2010 general election, Labour held onto all 41 of its seats north of the border (indeed, its vote actually rose by 2.5 per cent). With the Lib Dems' support in freefall owing to their decision to enter coalition with the Tories (the psephologist Lewis Baston recently predicted that they would lose all but one of their 11 Scottish constituencies), Labour is now the only one of the three main Westminster parties that can credibly challenge the SNP.

For this reason, Ed Miliband and his team recognise that the independence referendum is a significant political opportunity for him. With David Cameron publicly conceding that he lacks appeal in Scotland, Miliband can step forward as the man to prevent the break-up of Britain. 

It is this that he will do in a speech at the Scottish Labour conference today. When Alex Salmond delivered his New Statesman lecture earlier this month, he argued that Scotland could serve as a "progressive beacon" for the rest of the UK by pursuing the kind of social democratic policies shunned by Westminster. But in his address, Miliband will turn this argument on its head by declaring that rather than leading a "race to the top", the SNP would trigger a "race to the bottom". While Labour has pledged to increase corporation tax from 20 per cent to 21 per cent in order to fund a reduction in business rates for small firms, Salmond has vowed to reduce it to 3 per cent below the British level. Alongside this, he has refused to match Miliband's commitment to reintroduce the 50p tax rate (see his response to my question at the NS event) on the grounds that it could undermine Scotland's competitiveness. 

In recent weeks, Salmond has sought to present Labour as Tory stooges after they joined forces with George Osborne against a currency union. But Miliband will use the First Minister's weapon of choice against him by arguing that his stance on tax means he would join David Cameron in a "race to the bottom". Here's the key extract: 

Think how hard it would be to stop a race to the bottom happening if, on one island, we had a border running along the middle so we were divided in two. It would be two lanes in a race to the bottom - with David Cameron and Alex Salmond at the starting blocks - in which the only way they win is for you to lose.

If Scotland was to go independent, it would be a race to the bottom not just on tax rates, but on wage rates, on terms and conditions, on zero hours contracts, on taking on the energy companies, on reforming the banks. Those who can afford it will be paying less, while hardworking families across Scotland will pay more and see their services suffer.

Alex Salmond who claims to be a great social democrat would end up running the same race to the bottom that the Tories have embarked upon. The SNP talk about social justice but they can’t build it - because they can’t be narrow nationalists and serve social justice at the same time.

While Salmond will point to his stances on welfare, inequality and foreign policy as evidence of his commitment to a centre-left agenda, the problem he faces is that Miliband has embraced such policies himself. He has pledged to scrap the bedroom tax (which, like the Poll Tax, has become a symbol of Conservative callousness in Scotland), to reverse the privatisation of the NHS, to invest more in early-years education and childcare, to spread the use of the living wage, to rebalance the economy and to increase infrastructure spending. He has condemned the invasion of Iraq (which so alienated progressives in Scotland and elsewhere), prevented a rush to war in Syria and pledged to pursue a foreign policy based on "values, not alliances". Finally, he has denounced the rise in income inequality (which, as Salmond rightly laments, has made the UK one of "the most unequal societies in the developed world"), and has made its reversal his defining mission.

The core argument he will make today is that if the UK elects a Labour government next May, it won't need Scotland to serve as a "progressive beacon". Rather, it will become a more progressive country through its own means. 

The SNP want to tell you that there is a progressive Scotland and a Tory England. There isn’t. There are millions of people across every part of our country who want a better future for all our young people; who say it is just wrong that so many people in work find themselves in poverty, who want to be part of a country that is more just, more equal, more fair.

Let’s rebuild all of o‎ur country in the cause of social justice. Together, not alone; as neighbours on this island, not as strangers; as friends, not as competitors; in a race to the top, not to the bottom.

 Two decades on from the death of John Smith (whose wife recently made a rare intervention in support of Miliband's party reforms), he will also call on Labour to honour his legacy by successfully defending the Union. 

John Smith was a man who passionately believed in social justice in Scotland - and in the United Kingdom.  Twenty years on, that flame of social justice still burns. And we can honour his legacy by winning the fight for Scotland to remain in the United Kingdom.

In addition, according to Labour, he will "talk about his own family’s links to Scotland which saw his father train in the Royal Navy during the Second World War at Inverkeithing."  

For obvious reasons, it is Miliband, far more than Cameron, who has a political interest in the Union enduring. While the belief that an independent Scotland would consign the rest of the UK to permanent Conservative rule is exaggerated (on no occasion since 1945 would independence have changed the identity of the winning party and on only two occasions would it have converted a Labour majority into a hung parliament), the loss of 41 MPs would make it far harder for Labour to achieve majorities in the future. 

Were a Labour (or Lab-Lib Dem) government to be formed on the basis of support from MPs north of the border, the right-wing media and many Tories would denounce it as an illegitimate imposition on the rest of the UK. Miliband, meanwhile, would face the prospect of losing his majority less than a year after becoming prime minister. As a Labour MP recently put it to me, "If we lose Scotland, we could be completely buggered." 

With the polls narrowing significantly, Miliband will hope that today marks the start of the fightback. 

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.

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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.