David Cameron at the annual Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference on 10 November. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: David Cameron has no answers to the global crisis he describes

While highlighting dangers abroad, Cameron ignores those at home, including the long decline in living standards, the lack of investment and an overheated London property market.

Even before the damage from the last economic crisis has been repaired, the danger is growing of another. After briefly showing signs of recovery in 2013, the eurozone has slumped back into stagnation. Meanwhile, Japan has entered recession again, growth in China is slowing down and geopolitical threats proliferate.

David Cameron’s warning that “red lights are flashing on the dashboard of the global economy” was justified, even if his motives were primarily political. It is in the interests of the Conservatives for voters’ attention to be concentrated on this issue, rather than immigration, on which Ukip leads, and on the NHS, on which Labour does. By alerting the electorate that the storm has not passed, Mr Cameron aims to persuade them not to take a chance on the opposition at the general election. The hope is that a vote for Labour will appear too risky and that a vote for Ukip will appear too frivolous.

But if the Prime Minister’s jeremiad was politically astute it was also disingenuous. Having blamed the 2008 crisis on Labour’s profligacy, rather than global forces, he cannot now reasonably cite the same conditions as an alibi for the coming UK slowdown. While highlighting the dangers abroad, he ignores those at home, including the long decline in living standards, the lack of public and private investment and an overheated London property market.

Mr Cameron is correct to note the harm inflicted on Britain by the parlous state of the eurozone, our largest trading partner, but refuses to add that this results not from an absence of austerity (the policy he promotes for growth) but from a dangerous excess. As Mehdi Hasan writes on page 33, Europhiles should question their faith in an EU that has done so much to choke off demand in member states and so little to support it.

In these circumstances, voters in the UK and elsewhere are easily susceptible to populists and demagogues who seek to demonise immigrants. Politicians have spent a decade complaining that we do not talk about the issue. The truth is that many voters hear about little else. By too often reinforcing the myths about immigration, rather than challenging them, the two main parties jointly ensure that Ukip is the main beneficiary. No voter who heard Labour’s panicky pledge to ban migrants from claiming out-of-work benefits for two years after their arrival and to limit tax credits for those in employment would be reminded that migrants contribute considerably more in taxes than they receive in welfare payments. An OECD report last year, for instance, found that they make a net contribution to the UK of 1.02 per cent of GDP or £16.3bn, because they are younger and more economically active than the population in general.

The truth, which almost no politician will dare utter, is that Britain will need more, rather than fewer, immigrants in the future to meet the challenge of an ageing population. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that should the UK maintain net migration of roughly 140,000 a year (significantly higher than the government’s target of “tens of thousands”), debt will rise to 99 per cent of GDP by 2062-2063. But should it cut net migration to zero, debt will reach 174 per cent.

The Conservatives never miss an opportunity to boast of their “long-term economic plan” and their commitment to balanced growth. But the gap between rhetoric and reality has seldom been greater. Fixated on their ideological commitment to achieve a budget surplus by the end of the next parliament, the Tories offer none of the innovative thinking required to remake the British economy for this new insecure era. After Mr Cameron’s cynical promise of £7bn of tax cuts, even their devotion to fiscal restraint is now questionable.

Rather than managing decline, both Britain and the eurozone need an ambitious programme for growth. In the absence of economic leadership, the world is likely to remain at best trapped in what Keynes called “the long, dragging conditions of semi-slump” and at worst caught in the rapids of another global crisis. 

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

0800 7318496