Ed Miliband speaks at the Scottish Labour conference earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Miliband bangs on about the NHS

The Labour leader is determined to keep his party's strongest issue at the top of the agenda. 

For the third time in recent weeks, Ed Miliband went on the NHS at today's PMQs. Labour is determined to keep its strongest issue at the top of the agenda. Assailed by Miliband over rising A&E waiting times and the growing funding crisis, Cameron delivered his stock response: the coalition has invested more money in the NHS and "you only get a strong health service with a strong economy." Whenever Miliband mentions the subject, the PM seeks to drag him back to the Tories' favoured territory. 

But Labour aides regard Cameron having to talk about the NHS at all as a victory for them. The party's focus groups have found that the coalition's top-down reorganisation of the service means voters blame him for the deteriorating state of the service. When Cameron later responded to Ukip defector Mark Reckless by accusing the party of wanting to "break up" the NHS, the Labour frontbench pointed accusingly at him. The problem for the Tories is that many voters are doing the same. But some in Labour regard Miliband's reliance on the NHS as a mark of his weakness and his failure to conquer new political territory. 

There was no opportunity for Cameron to deliver the anticipated jibe over the Emily Thornberry affair. But Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi more than compensated when he bellowed: "When I see a white van, Mr Speaker, I think of the small business owner who works long hours to put food on the family table. When I see the cross of St George, I think of the words of my constituent, William Shakespeare, 'this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England!' Does my Rt Hon Friend agree with me that we shouldn't sneer at people who work hard, who are patriotic and who love their country?"

The Tory benches have rarely roared more loudly in appreciation. Cameron replied: "I agree with every word my Hon Friend has said. In fact, Mr Speaker, I was wondering why the Labour benches were so quiet. And now I realise, of course, the shadow attorney general who normally makes so much noise presumably isn't here today. Probably out taking pictures of people's homes I expect. But we know that meant about the modern Labour Party, sneering at people who work hard and love their country."

But Labour's shadow health minister Jamie Reed delivered a sharp riposte when he declared: "The first thing I think of when I see a white van is whether or not it’s my father or my brother driving it." Cameron retorted: "If he values people who work hard and want to get on, he ought to cross the floor."

Another notable moment came when Cameron was invited by Tory MP Andrew Turner to condemn Save The Children's award to Tony Blair (he denounced him for "taking us to war unnecessarily in Iraq"). Rather than attacking Blair over a war he also voted for, the PM wittily replied: "The remarkable thing about this award is that Tony Blair got it from someone who used to work for Gordon Brown. So obviously the person who gave the award knows about peacemaking and peacekeeping. But I think it's not for me to get involved."

Damian McBride, however, who worked for Brown alongside Save The Children CEO Justin Forsyth, was not impressed. "Given how loyally Justin Forsyth has supported David Cameron - including making Sam a patron - that was a pretty low blow from the PM," he tweeted

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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