Natalie Bennett: leftward bound. Photo: Getty
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Truly radical policies: how the Greens are hammering Labour’s left

The Green Party could stop Ed Miliband becoming Prime Minister.

Until a few months ago, Labour thought that its passage to power was simple enough. Hold onto its core vote, scoop up angry left-wing voters disaffected with the Liberal Democrats, and watch Ukip and the electoral system do the rest. They were reckoning without the Greens.

In 2010, the Green Party of England and Wales and the Scottish Green Party amassed a combined 1 per cent of the vote. Today the Greens are averaging 5 per cent, and even reached an all-time high of 8 per cent in a YouGov poll last week. And their trajectory is only going up: their average support has doubled since April. They are rapidly gaining footsoldiers – the membership of the Green Party of England and Wales has risen by 90 per cent in 2014. For so long bereft of publicity, the Greens have astutely exploited their exclusion from the broadcasters’ proposals from TV debates.

The upshot is terrifying for Labour. A Green surge would shatter Labour’s fragile electoral coalition for good. No wonder David Cameron supports including the Greens in the TV debates.

Labour is alert to this threat. Last month it appointed Sadiq Khan to lead a Labour’s Green Party Strategy Unit. Khan seems to believe that the Greens can be flattened through flattery. This week, he praised Caroline Lucas “with whom I agree on a great many things” and Green supporters, who “share the same values and aims as the Labour Party: reducing inequality, saving the NHS, building more homes, a commitment to human rights and civil liberties and protecting our environment.” But he warned that “every vote for the Green Party only makes it one vote easier for the Conservatives to win.” Vote Green, Get Tory is the new Vote Ukip, Get Labour.

The great problem for Labour is that it cannot simultaneously launch an offensive on its left and right flanks. Before 2013, Ukip took only one Labour vote for every nine they took from the Conservatives: no wonder Labour seemed so unperturbed by their rise. Since January 2013, it has lost six voters to Ukip for every nine that the Conservatives have lost to the People’s Army. Labour can try – as it has, but to no avail – to win back Ukip defectors but reconciling this with reaching out to disaffected left-wingers flirting with the Greens looks like an impossible balancing act.

And the Greens want to make it harder still. At last night’s Leaders Live debate, when Natalie Bennett answered questions from young voters, the Green Party leader again positioned her party well to Labour’s left. She reiterated her support for a wealth tax, and said she was attracted by a top rate of income tax of above 50 per cent, which would be imposed on income earned over £100,000, rather than over £150,000 as Labour proposes. Bennett also reiterated her support for the abolition of all academies and free schools.

Throughout, the implication was clear. Where Khan called Labour “a truly radical party again”, Bennett was decrying them as vacillating supporters of timid and incremental change. Labour’s worst nightmare is that enough of the Lib Dem defectors it has been relying on agree.  

The Greens remain a long way from being a true “Ukip of the left”. They are yet to develop much working-class appeal – 61 per cent of its supporters are ABC1. Unless that changes drastically, they will not match Ukip in the election. But that does not mean they could not have a critical impact on the next general election: even with just three per cent of the vote, Ukip cost the Tories at least five seats in 2010. So perilous is Labour’s route to Downing Street that even similar damage to them from the Greens next May could stop Ed Miliband becoming Prime Minister. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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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