The House of Lords. Photo: Leon Neal/AFP
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Parliament? Over the years I've met several powerful men there who have no idea of boundaries

Suffice to say that it’s an uncomfortable place for someone like me. One feels like a masked anarchist simply being there as a woman.

I remember very well the first time I went to the House of Fun. Westminster. The Commons. Parliament. Whatever you want to call it.

Like the fool that I am, I didn’t just nip in and out for the spicy bits. I sat in the chamber all day, every day, for aeons. Actually, maybe an entire three weeks. That’s still longer than many hacks who just turn up for the brawl that is PMQs.

First, I was given a guided tour and told how beautiful it all is. Here is Pugin’s throne. Here is the cupboard where the Queen gets dolled up for the opening of parliament. Here are some servants. Men with swords.

Possibly if I was a tourist from Utah, I might have found this “beautiful”, but the whole place is a cathedral of gloom with frilly bits and mannered decoration. It also smells, if repression has a smell.

Nonetheless, Westminster attracts a certain type. Not just politicians, but the kind of people who like to murmur in corridors and burrow away into its recesses. People who have grown up with, or grow to understand, a set of arbitrary and arcane rules paraded as tradition. Public school people.

Suffice to say that it’s an uncomfortable place for someone like me.

I spent the whole time, and still do, accidentally breaking rules.

One feels like a masked anarchist simply being there as a woman. A man in tights once tried to stop me entering the Press Gallery.

“You can’t go in there with that.”

“That” was a long scarf. Some ancient law, or the presumption that I was going to abseil down on to Michael Fabricant’s head? Who knows?

Several times, I was told off for talking. Near important people. Or for trying to get a sandwich in the wrong place. Or for trying to buy a drink in a bar that is for bishops only. Doh!!

I began to see how anyone cooped up there would have “moments of madness”. There’s something very odd about it all, but I wanted to understand it. So when a lord offered to take me to tea, I leapt at the chance to cross from the green carpet to the red and look at the Lords.

I thought Greville Janner, for it was he, would be explaining how the Lords functioned. Instead, he spent the entire time telling me about a birth he had attended. In gory detail. The birth of his grandchild.

This seemed to me extremely inappropriate. What woman has her own father there while she gives birth? I don’t know if what he told me was true. Mostly I squirmed, as I did not know why on earth he was describing this intimate experience to me.

All I can say now is that over the years, in this House of Rules, I have met several powerful men who have no idea of boundaries. Of any kind. At all.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?

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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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