Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron speaks at his party's spring conference in Brighton in 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Tim Farron turns on Miliband: he's no match for Kinnock

Having previously praised the Labour leader, the Lib Dem president says he has failed to change his party. 

Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president and the favourite to succeed Nick Clegg as leader, charmed activists at the Times's lunchtime fringe today. With his declaration that "our pitch for being in government again shouldn't be negative" (a rebuke to the leadership's strategy), and his call for an "active, ambitious" state to protect citizens from the vagaries of globalisation , he succeeded in lifting delegates' spirits. 

The most politically notable moment came when he was asked about Ed Miliband. In response to health minister Norman Lamb's comment that he couldn't see Miliband "as a prime minister", he warned the Lib Dems not to "personalise" the general election campaign. "Anyone can be prime ministerial once they're prime minister," he said. "I often think David Cameron isn't prime ministerial, but he is prime minister." He added, however, that "the problem for Labour is that people can't place Ed Miliband in their minds behind the door of No.10."  He then went further and quipped that it was wrong to compare Miliband to Neil Kinnock because "it's an unfair comparison to Kinnock". Unlike the current incumbent, he said, the former Labour leader "took on his party and won". 

Farron's criticism of Miliband contrasts with what he told me when I first interviewed him for the New Statesman in September 2013. Back then, he lavished praise on the Labour leader, declaring that "I really like Ed Miliband, so I don’t want to diss him. I don’t want join in with the Tories who compare him to Kinnock." Now he argues that Miliband isn't even worthy of this unflattering comparison.

Although it's not surprising that the Lib Dem president should want to criticise the Labour leader at his party's conference, it adds to the sense that Miliband's stock has fallen in the last year. The irony, of course, is that Farron's call for a more interventionist state puts the pair in the same ideological territory. 

Elsewhere in the session, he argued that the Lib Dems "should have died in a ditch over tuition fees", noting that "reputations take years to build and seconds to lose". When asked whether he would stand in a future leadership contest, he wisely replied: "Anyone giving any headspace to anyone other than Nick being leader is letting the side down."

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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