Jeremy Browne speaks in New Delhi while Foreign Office minister in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Jeremy Browne: Lib Dem leadership contest must include free market candidate

Lib Dem MP and former minister says "It’s essential that that choice is one that the party has". 

Ahead of the Lib Dem conference (they're going last rather than first this year due to the Scottish referendum), I've interviewed Jeremy Browne, one of the most party's most interesting and intellectually confident MPs. Since his surprise sacking as a Home Office minister last year, Browne has used his time well, first writing Race Plan, a radical manifesto for free-market liberalism, and now Why Vote Liberal Democrat 2015.  In the latter he argues that the Lib Dems must embrace "360-degree liberalism" if they are to flourish, championing freedom in both the economic and the social spheres. 

"If you talk to Lib Dem audiences about economic liberalism, which for me is the great global phenomenon of our time, and increased trade, competition and marketisation, Lib Dems get nervous that this will be seen as sounding too close to uncaring 1980s Thatcherism.

"As a result of that, we shy away from having a 360-degree liberal offer. We have a partial liberal offer. It reinforces the sense that we are hesitant about our own liberalism; we don’t follow through on each aspect of our offer." He argues that the rise of individualism and the decline of deference, most notably among the young, means that there is a "bigger marketplace" than ever for a programme of this kind (his policy proposals include the establishment of profit-making free schools, greater use of the private sector in the NHS, and a reduction in the top rate of tax from 45p to 40p). 

Given the conviction and articulacy with which Browne states his views I naturally asked him whether he would stand for the party leadership when a vacancy arises. "This is where politicians are meant to give some sort of clever and evasive answer," he laughingly replied when I raised the subject. "Let me give you a genuine answer, rather than trying to give you a clever answer."

He went on to tell me that there were "three broad options for the party".

Browne on the three kinds of Lib Dem leadership candidate 

1. The protest candidate 

The first, he said, was to "slump back into being a protest party" ("the comfort zone of tweeting about student sit-ins"). He added: "I think that would be a real let down if we did that, and would be an acceptance by us that we were not willing to be a bigger, more responsible party, so I’m very strongly against that strand, it may not identify itself in those terms but I think that may be seductive to some people in the party." 

It is not hard to see that Browne has Tim Farron, the party's left-leaning president, profilic tweeter, and the activists' favourite to become leader, in mind. 

2. The continuity candidate

The second option, he said, was represented by "a continuity, steady-as-she-goes strand", which believes "we can just continue to find a way to navigate around some of the pinch point moments that parties face, and muddle along." Again, it is not hard to imagine which likely candidate Browne is thinking of: Danny Alexander (who has been positioning himself to stand).

When I put Farron and Alexander's names to Browne, he replied: "Now you're being mischievous," which, I note, is not a denial. 

3. The complete liberal candidate

The third option, he said, was to embrace "360-degree liberalism" (economic and social liberalism) and to be "the liberal voice in the liberal age". When I asked him whether he would personally ensure that the party is offered this choice, he told me: "I don’t have massive personal ambitions. It’s a big sacrifice being the leader of a political party." But he added: "It’s essential that that choice is one that the party has. It’s actually essential that it’s one that the party adopts but it can’t adopt it if it doesn’t have that choice. Now, if someone else can do that better than me, that’s great."

Lib Dem sources suggest that Browne has David Laws, the schools minister and another figure from the party's free market wing, in mind. But Laws, who remains tainted by his forced resignation from the cabinet in 2010, may choose not to stand. When I asked Browne how he would respond if another economic liberal failed to come forward, he replied: "We'll see". 

At this stage, it would be imprudent for him to say anything else. But if no one else answers the call, this liberal prophet will surely take the chance to preach to the unconverted.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.