The Labour leadership contenders address delegates at the Progress conference in London on 16 May, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Both Labour and the Tories are battling for control of the centre, but will this moment last?

Whoever succeeds Ed Miliband as Labour leader will pursue a more moderate strategy. 

If the Labour leadership candidates have found it easy to distance themselves from Ed Miliband’s approach, it is partly because they never believed in it from the start. None of the contenders (Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Mary Creagh and Liz Kendall) endorsed him in 2010 and three preferred his brother. They always doubted that his left-aligned strategy would succeed in a quietly conservative England. The election result confirmed their view.

All of Miliband’s putative successors have positioned themselves to his right. Kendall has argued that the 50p income-tax rate should not be permanent. Cooper has called for the party to end its opposition to a 20 per cent corporation-tax rate. Even Burnham, the most left-leaning candidate, has rejected a mansion tax as “the politics of envy” and has criticised Miliband as insufficiently pro-business. All have said that the last Labour government should have run a Budget surplus before the financial crash.

Their positions reflect a shared analysis of the party’s worst election defeat since 1987. Labour is judged to have lost because it was not trusted to manage the public finances, it should have cared more about wealth creation (rather than merely wealth distribution) and it failed to appeal to Conservative voters. This consensus repels those on the left, such as the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, who argue that the party lost because it embraced austerity, fought on Tory territory by promising a “Budget Responsibility Lock” and pledged too little market intervention. “Rather than trying to change the party, they should change party,” one left-wing MP remarked of the candidates’ rightward trajectory.

Yet the nature of the defeat has made it harder for the left to define the terms of debate. Rather than merely losing votes to the SNP and the Greens, Labour lost votes to the Conservatives. There is no credible path back to power that does not involve converting Tory supporters in England. As data analysis first published by the New Statesman showed, simply to become the single largest party, Labour needs to win 51 seats from the Conservatives (up from 27 in 2010). A 6 per cent swing against the SNP would deliver gains of just two in Scotland. Only 16 seats would fall to Labour if it won every Green voter and retained all of its existing support. Some cite the “lazy Labour” thesis, which suggests that the party lost as a result of the failure of the 2.9 million who said they would vote for the party to turn out on the day. But a strategy premised on attracting them next time is freighted with risk. As one Labour source notes: “The problem with non-voters is, well, they tend not to vote.” To win, the party will need to attract the fair-minded moderates who swing between Labour and the Tories and who have decided every election since 1945.

It is because of this psephological reality that the next Labour leader will pursue a more centrist strategy than Miliband. This, it should be noted, is not the same as a centrist manifesto. A party can make a moderate pitch to the nation without significantly diluting its programme. David Cameron has masterfully smuggled through Thatcherite policies under the guise of One-Nation Conservatism. Labour’s 1997 manifesto included interventionist measures such as a minimum wage and a windfall tax on the privatised utilities. But the party did not allow such measures to define its election platform. Ben Bradshaw, who is standing for the deputy leadership, told me: “We don’t have mad politics or mad policies. We just had the wrong political strategy and the wrong messaging and the wrong approach.”

The greatest challenge for Burnham, the front-runner, may not be his (recently acquired) left-wing reputation but his ministerial past. The Tories will charge him with neglect of the NHS while health secretary (having refused to open a full public inquiry into the Mid Staffordshire scandal) and with neglect of the economy while chief secretary to the Treasury (despite presiding over a frugal Spending Review in 2007). At the PLP meeting on 18 May, Harriet Harman urged MPs to vote based on which candidate the public liked most, rather than which they did.

Others suggest identifying the contender who is most feared by the Tories (who presciently cheered when Ed Miliband was elected). The hope of Kendall’s supporters is that with Chuka Umunna and Dan Jarvis absent from the race, she will be embraced as a “clean skin” free from the toxic associations of the last Labour government. However, in view of the arithmetical Everest the next leader will face, some suggest a Machiavellian motive for Umunna and Jarvis standing aside. “Of course Dan backed Andy. It gives him five years to prepare,” one Labour source quipped. Whoever wins will begin by seeking to fight from the centre but if the strategy does not immediately bear fruit, the new leader will soon face demands to turn left (just as Tory equivalents did to turn right).

Still, after years of ideological divergence, Labour and the Tories have begun the new term fighting for ownership of the same political territory. David Cameron’s decision to devote his first speech since the election to the NHS was designed to underline his “One Nation” intent. George Osborne’s rhetorical focus is no longer the deficit but the “northern powerhouse”. Yet, once the post-election euphoria fades, and with the alibi of coalition government no longer available, they will struggle to resist demands for more red-blooded conservatism. With their opponents divided and ruled, however, the Tories can savour this Elysian moment. “In opposition, you move to the centre. In government, you move the centre,” runs one of Osborne’s favourite aphorisms. As he prepares to deliver yet another austerity Budget, it is a lesson that the Labour leadership candidates should heed.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

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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