Nick Clegg and David Cameron. Photo: Getty
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Will these professionally beige career politicians ever understand public service?

Despite grand promises, the coalition has not found a new way forward, nor has it overseen a resurgence of democratic engagement.

History tells us that in times of austerity, the poor and vulnerable are easy targets for those seeking to divide and weaken society. Benefit Bashing appears to be a new national sport, and this is a direct result of the death of the conviction politician, and the readiness of careerist MPs to dance to the tune of press barons in the hope of currying favourable electoral coverage. The ordinary voter is no longer the lynchpin, and press barons have seized the power our elected representatives have so readily ceded, now acting as king maker. Consequently, it’s now okay to making sweeping generalisations against huge swathes of people suffering deeply at the hands of a government composed of morally myopic, finger wagging millionaires, while ignoring harsh realities of how those government policies embed poverty and inexorably entrench class divides. The truth is no more than an inconvenience to be misreported or ignored. The fact that the media have shown more interest in where Bob Crow sunbathed on holiday, than the fact that 1 in 7 schoolchildren will endure a winter without a suitable coat says it all.

The untimely demise of Bob and Tony Benn could not have come at a worse time. The attacks on the working poor, vulnerable and disabled are not only coming from predictable government and media sources, but also from Labour. Both men were conviction politicians, routinely castigated for their views on most subjects, and in a minority of left wing advocates who managed to achieve broad media presence, speaking up for those with no voice, railing against casualisation of employment, and crusading against the excesses of a broken political system. They both passionately espoused radical socialist democracy, similar to the post war Labour administration that introduced universal health care, widespread pensions, expansive house building and full employment, but  were ultimately deserted by New Labour, as the party engaged in a limp wristed arm wrestle for what certain media outlets decided was the centre ground. It is the embedded fear held by political leaders of press barons, and a complete lack of political voices of conviction and passion, willing to defend the working poor and vulnerable that has opened the door to such flagrant collective character assassinations of benefit claimants, the like of which we have not seen since the darkest days of Margaret Thatcher.

Back in 2010, I remember discussing the prospect of coalition with many who saw alliance between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats as a necessary evil, as well as being symptomatic of that broken system. In the infancy of this parliament, sun-kissed press conferences told us how new politics would establish new economic balance, the intoxicating melody of false hope weaving its thread through the sweet fabric of those summer afternoons, atop hypnotic drumbeats of blame aimed squarely and repeatedly at the previous administration. Four years later, the coalition is not so much necessary evil as it is a political infection that has been encouraged and cultivated by the collusion of a rudderless Labour Party, and the enthusiastic applauding of the more unedifying elements of the right wing press. Like any infection of virulence that goes unchallenged, it grew in size and severity, morphing from the Coalition of the Willing, into a Coalition of Haters.

Despite grand promises, the coalition has not found a new way forward, nor has it overseen a resurgence of democratic engagement. It has overseen the legitimising of repeated smears and attacks from government and massed media aimed squarely at those least able to defend themselves. It has overseen swathes of the legal aid system becoming virtually inaccessible for the working poor and vulnerable. It has overseen the bedroom tax continuing to wreak havoc among the most disadvantaged families, and employment rights and job security sacrificed with impunity. It has overseen the very poorest among us looking on helplessly while foreign nationals and bankers massage their tax burdens via London property acquisitions, with the working poor languishing on poverty pay in part time work, on zero hours contracts, or subsidising the profits of wealthy multinationals through workfare placements.  

We must take some blame for this. We buy these papers, and we recycle these lies. We need to stop subsidising this horror show. We need politicians unafraid of voicing opinion, men and women of conviction and passion willing to stand up for the poorest and most vulnerable, because those on benefits should never be column fodder for wealthy press barons. We need more Bob Crows and Tony Benns. They are the bulwark against the race to the bottom, and the worst instincts of a feckless coalition. They are a reminder that we must continue to oppose injustice and cruelty, and are an example to every professionally beige career politician of what it means to engage in public service.

 

Karl Davis is a writer, stand up comedian, train driver, and trade union activist and advocate. He lives in Hull and is married with two young sons.

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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.