The crown on Richard III's coffin. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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Labour in a trap, Cameron’s decade debacle, democracy at the Guardian and Leicester’s losers

Plus Richard III interred - and that end-of-term feeling as Parliament closes down.

My nightmare of a decisive Tory election victory refuses to go away. George Osborne’s Budget may have disappointed Tories who hoped for a cut in headline tax rates, and encouraged Labour supporters who think he blundered by failing to mention the NHS. Yet YouGov’s post-Budget polls show his personal ratings rising. Asked who would make the better chancellor, twice as many choose Osborne as choose Ed Balls.

True, the Tories’ poll position hasn’t improved so far, and chancellors’ ratings usually rise immediately after a Budget. But, I fear, the Tories will do themselves no harm whatever by promising more austerity until 2019. Labour’s “responsibility” for the financial crisis and subsequent recession has been firmly (and falsely) implanted in voters’ minds. So has the equally false allegation that Labour’s spending brought Britain close to Greece-style ruin. The more the Tories talk about austerity, therefore, the more voters are reminded of Labour’s supposed recklessness and incompetence. And the longer austerity goes on – or is said to begoing on, given that, in fact, Osborne largely abandoned it in 2012 – the worse Labour’s legacy looks. “They left such a mess that it’s taking us nearly ten years to clear it up,” the Tories will say. Eds Miliband and Balls are caught in a trap that will be hard to escape.

 

End-of-term feeling

No prime minister since Lord Liverpool has served three full terms of office consecutively. The fates of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair tell us that, after a decade, everyone becomes sick of the sight of whoever’s in Downing Street, and the PMs themselves go at least slightly mad. Because the law says a term now has to be five years rather than the more usual four, it was a statement of the obvious for David Cameron to say he wouldn’t serve a third term. But it was still a foolish error – we haven’t given you a second term yet, sunshine, and didn’t really intend you to have a first – which shows again that Cameron rarely thinks through the consequences of what he says and does. Neville Chamberlain was once described as a good lord mayor of Birmingham in a bad year. It may be said of Cameron that he was a good PR of Carlton TV in a bad year.

 

The infantry has spoken

Newspapers’ internal affairs, someone once said to me, are more political than politics (she worked for David Owen when he and David Steel led the SDP-Liberal Alliance, and so she spoke with authority). Several commentators saw lots of politics in Katharine Viner’s success in the staff ballot for the next Guardian editor and her subsequent appointment. The result, they suggested, represented a rejection of the legacy of Alan Rusbridger, the outgoing editor, and particularly of his single-minded focus on Edward Snowden’s revelations about the intelligence agencies. But without denying that such considerations had some influence, I prefer a simpler explanation: Viner is a more charming, more inclusive and less threatening figure than Janine Gibson, who started as the bookies’ and Rusbridger’s favourite.

Viner, a former editor of the Saturday paper and latterly head of the Guardian’s US operation, campaigned vigorously, buttonholing staff in corridors and telling them to vote from the heart. She said staff should get more feedback and career development, and the Guardian should have more “warmth and fun”. She thus won over the poor bloody infantry – reporters, specialist correspondents, sub-editors, all of whom feel desperately insecure and somewhat marginalised as the Guardian transforms itself into an international digital brand – and took the ballot by a thumping margin, with the slightly scary Gibson, boss of the company’s digital journalism, languishing in third place.

 

Insider dealings

The result wasn’t binding on the Scott Trust, which appoints the editor; had Viner won narrowly, it might have gone ahead with its plan to give the job to Gibson. But the rulers of a newspaper that shouts its commitments to democracy and equal opportunities could hardly ignore such a decisive result. Nor, with three plausible female candidates, could it do more than pay Ian Katz, a former deputy editor who moved to edit BBC2’s Newsnight, the compliment of making him runner-up. As for the various Americans it encouraged to apply – they included a former editor of the International Herald Tribune – they all disappeared without trace.

That is the trouble with allowing staff a significant voice. They will always favour an inside candidate – better the devil you know, etc – and outsiders usually want to keep their interest confidential lest they upset their current employers. (Katz, though his application was an open secret, was not on the journalists’ ballot paper.) Proprietors frequently appoint insiders anyway but sometimes newspapers need an editor from outside their culture. Would anybody have voted for Andrew Neil, an obscure Economist hack when Rupert Murdoch made him Sunday Times editor? Or for Max Hastings, best known as a rather self-aggrandising foreign correspondent when Conrad Black installed him at the Telegraph?

 

Pride of Leicester

The English are so stubbornly royalist that they will scatter roses, line the streets and wait hours to file past a coffin for a king who’s been dead more than 500 years. It seems appropriate that Leicester, poised to record the rare double of its football team coming bottom of the Premier League and its cricket team bottom of the County Championship, now turns out to celebrate Richard III, whose life ended in defeat not only for him but for the entire Plantagenet dynasty. Still, my birthplace always makes the best of what J B Priestley, in his curmudgeonly way, called “a very rum mixed list of historical associations”. As readers and viewers of Wolf Hall will know, Cardinal Wolsey died there – another loser, come to think of it – and he was commemorated by a local manufacturer stamping his name on men’s socks and underpants. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

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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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