Ed Miliband and Tony Blair speak in Westminster Hall on March 20, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Miliband won't win by telling voters how great New Labour was

Defeated parties do not regain power by fighting old battles but by convincing voters that they have changed.

The demand of John Hutton and Alan Milburn's piece in today's Financial Times is a familiar one: defend our record. Ed Miliband has frequently been charged by members of the last Labour government with failing to devote sufficient time to reminding voters of the achievements of that administration. The Tories, it is said, have been given free rein to trash the party's brand.

Hutton and Milburn's primary complaint is the failure to rebut the Conservative claim that it was excessive public spending that caused the economic crisis. As they write: "The last Labour government could be considered one of the most prudent in modern times. After a decade in power it had cut the deficit and cut the national debt. Mr Osborne cannot have been unduly concerned about Labour spending plans when, in 2007, he committed the Tories to sticking to them. Among the Group of Eight rich countries, only Canada had less public debt." 

In 2007, both the deficit (2.4 per cent of GDP) and the national debt (36.5 per cent) were lower than in 1997 (3.4 per cent of GDP, national debt of 42.5 per cent). It was the crash that caused the deficit (which swelled to 11 per cent after a collapse in tax receipts), not the deficit that caused the crash. 

The claim that Miliband and Ed Balls have failed to point all of this out is unmerited. Indeed, Balls in particular, has often been accused of mounting too aggressive a defence of Labour's fiscal record. In January 2014, he told The Andrew Marr Show: "Do I think the level of public spending going into the crisis was a problem for Britain? No, I don’t, nor our deficit, nor our national debt – what happened was a global financial crisis which pushed up the deficit." Similarly, in 2011, Miliband commented: "The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats I think are pedalling a very dangerous myth because they want to tell people that it was somehow all because of a decade of overspending under Labour. It wasn’t. It was because of a financial crash – a financial crash that happened all round the world."

Both men have rightly resisted the demand from the right, and occasionally from the left, to "apologise" for Labour's profligacy. But if they have refused to be as vocal as Hutton and Milburn would like, their caution has been wise. The perception that the last Labour government "overspent" is now so ingrained that there is little to be gained from mounting a desperate rearguard action. Miliband and Balls have instead focused on reassuring voters that they would be wise spenders in office, pledging to eliminate the current deficit and reduce the national debt as a share of GDP. 

The wider complaint from Milburn and Hutton is that "They have worked harder to distance themselves from New Labour than to defend its record". Indeed, and they have been right to do so. Defeated parties do not regain power by fighting old battles but by convincing voters that they have changed. They win arguments about the future, not about the past. Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and, to a lesser extent, David Cameron all won by defining themselves against both the government of the day and their parties’ former incarnations. Cameron’s failure to achieve a majority reflected the incompleteness of his modernising project.

Voters who deserted Labour betweeen 1997 and 2010 will not be assuaged by reminders of its achievements: the minimum wage, the shortest NHS waiting times, Sure Start and a million fewer pensioners in poverty (any more than they were at the last general election). They will be won back through an honest reckoning with its mistakes: the indifference to inequality, the Iraq war, the lack of financial regulation and the disregard for civil liberties. Miliband was quicker than most to recognise this (the key to his leadership victory in 2010). His failure, if anything, has been an inability to more clearly detach Labour from its past. Those who have abandoned the party for Ukip, the SNP and the Greens have not done so because they believe Miliband has too little in common with his predecessors. 

There are numerous criticisms that one can level at the Labour leader's performance, and that of his party, since 2010. But it does not follow that an unremitting defence of its past record would have served the opposition any better. Indeed, it would likely have served it far worse. 

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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