Douglas Carswell, who held the safe Tory seat of Clacton, has defected to UKIP. Photo: Getty.
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What Carswell's defection means for Labour and the Left

How confused has politics become when it takes an irritable right-winger to state a philosophy of the Left?

Friends of the political establishment should be disturbed by Douglas Carswell’s defection to UKIP this morning. It was a surprise to all; unaccompanied by the familiar rumours and cryptic-burblings in the media that normally precede major political "moments". The announcement was bold and resolute, made in considered and perspicuous language, and formulated to persuade rather than deceive. In short, it was the antithesis of the type of politics it was designed to subvert.

It is nothing new to say that Cameron’s brand of Toryism is vapid; without serious intellectual heritage or direction. Radically undermining the family unit through cruel and sadistic benefit and tax changes, whilst simultaneously increasing the public debt, Cameron’s administration has been a clumsy experiment in neoliberal political management, utterly devoid of ideological guidance, relying on specious sound-bites to spasmodically jitter from crisis-to-crisis. We all know this and Carswell critiques it more brilliantly than I ever could so I refer you to him.

What I am more concerned about are the consequences of Carswell’s arguments for the Labour Party, where my allegiances lie. I fear that in the long run Carswell’s announcement will reveal less about the internal struggles of the Tory Party than it does about the intellectual inadequacies and impoverishments of the Left.

In his announcement this morning Carswell took a decidedly un-conservative position. He rejected the assumption that consensuses are the product of collective reason and experience – they are simply constructions that serve a sectional interest.

Invoking Paine more than Burke, Carswell noted how his party sustains itself on this myth.  We might be told that certain constraints are non-negotiable, and certain assumptions must be held, but this is just a rhetorical guise to conceal their partial and transient character. On Carswell’s account the cross-party deference towards the financial services, or to the EU, says less about the philosophical or economic merits of such a position than it does about the insular world of modern British politics. Put simply, there is an alternative to the status quo.

A familiar trope of the Left, you might say. But then why has it been left to an irritable right-winger to state it?

How confused have our politics become when Labour are arguing that our relationship with Europe should roughly remain the same? That, while the EU may be a Hayekian fantasy of unaccountable bureaucracy and anti-inflationary consensus, we should stick with it for the sake of economic stability.

And that we should be grateful for the occasional token directive enforcing gender equality or upholding workers conditions – as if these social rights were the invention of a benevolent Belgian bureaucrat, rather than the product of a long and bloody struggle in this country which often meant rejecting our European neighbours for a genuinely internationalist outlook. If we had a referendum on the EU we would be seen as eccentric and esoteric, the argument runs, unable to deal with "modernity".

We should be big enough to take that criticism. Like Carswell I remain optimistic. Consent for the consensus, even the passive variety, is waning. As ever, Labour is one step behind the electorate; the glib New Labour promises of consistency and competence are insufficiently rousing to achieve major electoral success. It might just be that an irritable right-winger is exactly what we need to shake up the Left.

Matthew Ward is taking up an MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual History at Clare College, Cambridge.

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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