Conservative defector Mark Reckless speaks at a Ukip public meeting in Rochester. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How Labour plans to counter the Tories' Rochester spin

The party is determined not to allow the Conservatives to make Labour failure the story of Thursday's by-election. 

Having already conceded defeat to Ukip ahead of Thursday's Rochester by-election (the most recent poll put Nigel Farage's party 12 points ahead), the Tories are now focused on damage limitation. They aim to cut Conservative defector Mark Reckless's lead to single digits and to turn attention to the performance of Labour, which is set to finish a distant third. Their hope is that defeat in Rochester is now "priced in" and will fail to trigger the crisis that the opposition wanted. 

In response, Labour is preparing its rebuttal. Expect the party to remind voters just how much David Cameron staked on victory in the seat. The PM vowed to "throw the kitchen sink" at Ukip (kicking Reckless's "fat arse" in the process) with all Conservative MPs ordered to visit at least three times and all cabinet ministers to visit at least five (not all have obliged). The common view among the Tories was that while defeat to the popular Douglas Carswell in the Clacton by-election was inevitable, victory over Reckless was eminently achievable. "Losing is not an option," one government figure declared

With the reverse now the case, the Tories are seeking to present their performance as adequate compared to that of Labour whose vote has fallen from 28.5 per cent in 2010 to 17 per cent. A Conservative source told the Observer: "Our vote is holding up OK. We are at 30 per cent, maybe even 33 per cent. It is not bad. Ukip are in the 40s. But Labour have absolutely capitulated and collapsed in a seat that they held until 2010. There are at least as many questions for Ed Miliband as for us. We are fairly relaxed about the whole thing, as I think it is priced in at this stage."

Labour rejects all of this. As one aide pointed out to me, far from "holding up", the Tories' vote has collapsed from 49 per cent in 2010 to 32 per cent in the most recent poll. "They want to make this about us, it's all about them," he said, deriding "spin to the point of gibberish". Labour sources also point out that it is not true to say the party held the seat until 2010. Had the constituency been fought on its current boundaries in 2005, Bob Marshall-Andrews (who represented the predecessor seat of Medway) would have lost. 

An aide described Rochester as a "landslide victory seat", adding "we know we're not looking at a landslide victory". Despite its well-regarded candidate Naushabah Khan, the party argues that it was inevitable that its vote would be squeezed, with the usual two-horse by-election dynamic magnified by Reckless's high-profile defection. "If we get 10 per cent we'll be doing well", I was told. In response to those who say it should have devoted more resources to the by-election, the party argues that it is focused on the marginal seats it needs to win a majority (and in which it remains ahead). 

But while Labour is determined to define Rochester as a Conservative failure, Cameron's party may not be as unnerved as it hoped. Tory MPs have been reassured by national polls putting them neck-and-neck with the opposition and by a Lord Ashcroft survey showing they would win the seat at a general election. But that the Conservatives are now prepared to tolerate defeat to not one but two Ukip defectors is further evidence of their diminished ambitions. And the fear remains that there could be more to come. 

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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