Tony Benn prepares to address the crowd during the 'Antiwar Mass Assembly' organised by the Stop the War Coalition at Trafalgar Square on October 8, 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Tony Benn dies at 88

The Labour giant died this morning at his home in west London.

The sad news has just broken that Tony Benn, a great democrat, socialist and internationalist, has died at the age of 88. 

In a statement his children Stephen, Hilary, Melissa and Joshua said:

"It is with great sadness that we announce that our father Tony Benn died peacefully early this morning at his home in west London surrounded by his family.

"We would like to express our heartfelt thanks to all the NHS staff and carers who have looked after him with such kindness in hospital and at home.

"We will miss above all his love which has sustained us throughout our lives. But we are comforted by the memory of his long, full and inspiring life and so proud of his devotion to helping others as he sought to change the world for the better.

"Arrangements for his funeral will be announced in due course."

Ed Miliband, who did work experience with Benn at 16, and who won his support in the Labour leadership contest, said:

“The death of Tony Benn represents the loss of an iconic figure of our age.

“He will be remembered as a champion of the powerless, a great parliamentarian and a conviction politician.

“Tony Benn spoke his mind and spoke up for his values. Whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him, everyone knew where he stood and what he stood for.

“For someone of such strong views, often at odds with his Party, he won respect from across the political spectrum.

“This was because of his unshakeable beliefs and his abiding determination that power and the powerful should be held to account.

“He believed in movements and mobilised people behind him for the causes he cared about, often unfashionable ones. In a world of politics that is often too small, he thought big about our country and our world.

“Above all, as I had cause to know, he was an incredibly kind man. I did work experience with him at the age of 16. I may have been just a teenager but he treated me as an equal. It was the nature of the man and the principle of his politics.

“I saw him for the last time a couple of weeks ago in hospital. He may have been ailing in body but was as sharp as ever in mind. As I left he said to me 'Well, old son. Let's have a proper talk when you have more time.' As he said of his wife Caroline at her funeral, he showed us how to live and how to die.”

“All of my condolences go to his children Stephen, Hilary, Melissa and Joshua and his wider family. In their own ways, they are all a tribute to him as a father, a socialist, and a most decent human being.”

David Cameron, who once said that he was inspired by Benn's Arguments For Democracy, tweeted: "Tony Benn was a magnificent writer, speaker and campaigner. There was never a dull moment listening to him, even if you disagreed with him."

Cameron said at the Woodstock Literary Festival in 2009: "The other [book that most influenced me] was Tony Benn's book Arguments for Democracy, a very powerful book which makes the important point that we vest power in people who are elected, and that we can get rid of, rather than those we can't."

Gordon Brown said: "Tony Benn was a powerful, fearless, relentless advocate for social justice and people’s rights whose writing as well as speeches will continue to have a profound influence on generations to come. My thoughts are with his family, whom he adored."

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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