Babies and bathwater. Photo:Getty
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It's not just enough to "listen" to young people. They have to be respected, too

We need to reach for a more authentic, localised politics, in the wake of the Spad era, rather than just revert to the days of pinstripes and tweed. As the faux warts ‘n’ all allure of Ukip shows, there’s a danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

This week I received a letter saying I had “no experience of the real world”. It came courtesy of my Conservative opponent in South Thanet (the three-way marginal where I’m the Labour candidate) and was a reference to the fact I am – shock horror – aged 25.

Having repeatedly been referred to by the candidate in question as “the Labour boy”, reading that I had no life experience did not cause the hours of existential soul-searching it might have. But it is frustrating, as a married father of two, that opponents still try to use my age as a stick to beat me with. Imagine, for a second, a younger candidate playing the age card in reverse, by attacking a 65 year-old as “world weary and beset with health problems”. There would rightly be hell to pay!

Were I up against an ex-Archbishop or prize-winning economist then there might be pause for thought. But my two opponents are a stockbroker cum truant MEP (a certain Mr Farage) and a tax avoidance expert who has run for office nine times – including five times for Ukip before defecting to the Conservatives. “Life experience”, it would seem, can only be acquired in the corridors of high finance or the chapels of Euroscepticism.

The last few years have seen the public reject machine politics, and with it the class of career politicians who move from Oxbridge to Westminster without encountering real life. But we need to reach for a more authentic, localised politics, in the wake of the Spad era, rather than just revert to the days of pinstripes and tweed. As the faux warts ‘n’ all allure of Ukip shows, there’s a danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

I should add that this is not a party political issue, and I don’t doubt there’s a young Tory candidate somewhere being demeaned by a Labour silverback. It’s about the fact that my generation has been on the sharp end of the recession, and we deserve a stake in decisions.

Rick Edwards, campaigner on this issue and author of None of the Above, points out the importance of younger candidates in reaching younger voters, saying “it helps if you can see people in power who are a bit like you”. As it is under-30s are still humoured too much and respected too little, with the result that the old-style politics of dogma persists. And while “engaging young people” may be a buzz-phrase politicians are happy to use in the media, it can ring hollow on the campaign trail.

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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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