Waving goodbye? The era when genuine leftwingers, such as Michael Foot, could rise to the top, may be over for good. Photo:Getty Images
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Labour's left flank must ask itself: is it time to walk away?

The choice for Labour's genuine left may be between walking out or fading away.

Watching the prospective leaders of the Labour Party jockey for position, you could be forgiven for thinking that a great debate over the future of social democracy was about to take place. The emphatic nature of the call for debate masks its lack of political content: three weeks on from Labour’s worst election result in almost a century, the debate over the future of the party is essentially over. Even without their preferred candidate in the race, the right wing of the party has won; the Labour left must now decide what to do – and act decisively.

There were two lessons that could have been drawn from Labour’s collapse in England. The first was that Labour lost the argument over the economy because it failed to offer any real alternatives or arguments. The strategy of leaning into the centre ground meant that Miliband and Balls were committed to arguing from the same premise of austerity and fiscal restraint as the Tories, even abandoning their own record in government, but desperately trying to reach different conclusions. In the eyes of a majority of the electorate, including a large chunk of Labour’s working class base, these conclusions were either incoherent and unconvincing, or so weak that they would not make much difference.

The other lesson –established by a carefully choreographed set of interventions from Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and co – was rather simpler: that Labour, having run on a broadly social democratic platform, was too left wing or “stuck in the past”. Some in the liberal left will be coaxed into this version of events in the shallow hope of some kind of intellectual revival, but in terms of policy, the conclusions will be ugly – that Labour was not anti-immigrant enough, not pro-private sector enough, not Euro-sceptic enough, not hard enough on benefit claimants.

Under the new one member one vote election rules, any attempt to beat back this emerging consensus in favour of a more centre-left option is very unlikely to succeed. Even worse, without 35 MPs, the left cannot even get onto the ballot paper. There will be no Ed Milibands and no Diane Abbotts in this election, let alone a John McDonnell.

For many on the Labour left, the only fruitful response to the dire internal situation in the party is to turn outwards into grassroots campaigns – through already-existing campaigns, or through new forums bringing together leftwing CLPs, trade unions and local communities.

Though this emphasis may well be correct, and the bringing in of Labour activists into local campaigns may well provide a vital new energy and resources into various campaigns, it does not really answer the question facing the Labour left. The reality is that, following decades of erosion, the Labour left is simply being muted. Since the abolition of Clause IV and the wave of reforms that ended much of the internal democracy in the party in the 1990s, many Labour left activists have quietly given up hope of seriously influencing party policy via the official structures. Now we must assess whether remaining in Labour is really a good use of anyone’s time.

The attachment of so many socialist and other leftwing activists to the Labour Party was never about an affinity for the policies of its leadership –as is so often, and so naively, implied by some newer members of the various left-of-Labour surges (namely the SNP and the Greens) that have characterised the past 12 months – or even a belief that the party could be “reclaimed”. They were, firstly, that without electoral reform no other party could achieve anything other than splitting the Labour vote and, secondly, that leftwing activists should align themselves to, and agitate within, the organised working class, who are still, despite everything, largely affiliated to Labour. After this election, both of those rationales need to be urgently re-examined.

The prospect of a Unite split, which has been heavily trailed for a variety of motives across the mainstream press, would change everything. It would mean that one of the largest, and from the left’s point of view one of the best, unions in the country would either establish or be looking for a new political home – and would mean that less than half of the TUC would be Labour Party-affiliated. More than numbers, Unite’s organising capacity – in the low wage private sector and among the precariat – is exactly the membership and demographic that the left so desperately needs to convince and recruit.

The effect of the electoral system has not changed fundamentally as a result of the election –and in fact under a Tory government it is more likely than ever to remain first past the post. But the real question is posed by Ukip, which is now capable of seriously challenging the working class and ‘left behind’ Labour vote. If Labour shifts further to the right, and in doing so loses even more traction with its core, then its core will go somewhere. The lesson of Scotland, although taking place on much more fertile ground, was that even under first past the post, a hegemonic political party’s position can be inverted in favour of another – and that goes for parties of the left and the right.

There is much to be cautious about in terms of a split on the left of the Labour Party. If it is led by Unite, as it likely would be, there would be questions over whether a new party of the left could fully develop if it was immediately dominated by the Unite leadership. But if, after the left has stayed in the party to argue over its future, Labour lurches back to the right under a new leader who promises to further erode the union link and any commitment to social democracy, the Labour left will have a duty to consider whether it can seriously provide a leftwing alternative from the inside, or whether it should split now to prevent itself from simply fading away. 

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.


Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  


India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.