Chuka Umunna's speech this year was 40 per cent shorter than last year. Photo: Getty.
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Were three of Labour's shadow ministers made to restrict their speeches?

Three of Labour's most prominent shadow ministers – Chuka Umunna, Tristram Hunt and Douglas Alexander – have given the conference's shortest speeches. 

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Ed Balls' marathon speech has dominated discussion at Labour Party conference today, but three other speeches have also been conspicuous for their length.

Three of Labour’s most prominent shadow ministers – Douglas Alexander, Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt, Labour’s shadow foreign, business and education secretaries – have given the conference’s shortest speeches.

All three of them spoke for around 850 words or less. The 13 other speeches delivered so far have all been longer, and ten have been at least 1,000 words. Excluding Balls’, they have been, on average, 1,200 words – why were the speeches by three of Labour’s most prominent shadow ministers 30 per cent shorter?

We hear that at least one of the shadow ministers was handed a word count. Were planned announcements held back for Balls’ and Miliband’s speech? If they were given to the former they didn’t amount to the gifts many journalists expected from the shadow chancellor’s address this morning.

Either way, Chuka Umunna’s speech was nearly 40 per cent shorter than the one he delivered at conference a year ago. The CEO of Airbus UK, whose speech preceded Umunna’s, spoke for longer than the shadow business secretary whom he was effectively introducing. And Hunt’s was 30 per cent as long as the one Stephen Twigg, his predecessor at education, gave last year.

As for Alexander, the speech by Labour’s shadow foreign secretary was scarcely longer last year. The role may be one of the most important in government, but it is clearly subordinate to domestic politics at conference.

In the wake of the Scottish referendum, the two longest speeches after Balls’ have been by Hilary Benn and Margaret Curran. As shadow secretary for local government the former has been given new profile by the post-referendum push for devolution, while the latter is shadow secretary for Scotland.

Benn spoke for more than twice as long as Umunna, Alexander and Hunt. Devolution is the topic du jour, but did the Labour Party’s approach to business, education and international relations need to be curtailed to the length of a comment piece?

Harry Lambert was the editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.

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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