The 2015 battle bus. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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Leader: Labour has to choose between reform and irrelevance

It seems as if some on the left prefer the ideological purity of opposition to the pragmatism of winning elections.

Ed Miliband challenged his brother, David, for the leadership of the Labour Party in 2010 because he believed that it was his destiny to become prime minister and, as his confidants liked to put it, to rewire capitalism for a new era of deepening inequality. Convinced that the financial crisis and the consequent Great Recession had created a “social-democratic moment” rather than, as it turned out, a preoccupation with fiscal discipline and balanced budgets, Mr Miliband steered his party to a defeat that was all the more shocking for many of his supporters because, misled by the polls, they believed to the last that he would end up in Downing Street. Yet, had this happened, it would have been no victory at all. A Miliband minority government would not have had a resounding mandate for economic and political transformation: it would have been dependent on the whims of the Scottish National Party, Labour’s rival.

This magazine had long been sceptical about Mr Miliband’s leadership. Last autumn, we warned that he was leading ­Labour to defeat, not because it gave us pleasure to do so but because the most vulnerable in society are not best served by Labour being out of power. It seems as if some on the left, however, prefer the ideological purity of futile opposition over the pragmatic task of winning elections.

In our issue of 1 May, in which we made our election endorsement of Labour, we warned that Mr Miliband had not “changed the character of his party enough” and that he had “not created a sentiment from which truly transformative policies could have flowed”. He had argued “simultaneously for more austerity and more socialism”. Nor had he found a way of channelling the aspirations of working-class and skilled lower-middle-class voters in the Midlands, the Home Counties and southern England. In our view, Labour must be the party not only of social justice, but of social mobility.

Surrounded by a small group of male academics and advisers (whom the shadow cabinet minister Michael Dugher calls “pointy-heads” on page 36), Mr Miliband offered a highly theoretical critique of globalisation’s failings. But it was as if, at times, he was addressing a group of insiders rather than seeking to build a broad coalition of support throughout these islands. The result was a devastating defeat for Labour. As soon as he became leader, Mr Miliband was eager to distance himself from the Blair years, even the successes. This was a strategic mistake and angered many of his MPs. Unlike Tony Blair, Mr Miliband seldom spoke about education (even though state academies were the creation of New Labour) or Britain’s place in the world. Far too late, he attempted to reframe Labour as the party of fiscal rectitude by including a “Budget Responsibility Lock” in the manifesto, months ­after forgetting to mention the deficit in his party conference speech. In the end, when it mattered, Labour was not trusted to run the economy more competently than the Tories.

On 11 May, David Miliband criticised his brother for allowing himself “to be portrayed as moving [the party] backwards” and said that Labour “will not win” unless it “embraces aspiration and inclusion”. Other senior figures from the so-called Blairite wing of the party have been much bolder in their denunciations of what they perceive to have been Labour’s wrong turn under Ed Miliband, who, in our view at least, was correct to identify inequality as one of the great moral challenges of our time.

We are urging no return to Blairism. It was the creation of a certain time and a peculiar set of circumstances. What applied then may not work today. What is necessary is a period of sustained reflection. “Labour has a cultural problem to resolve,” Andrew Marr writes on page 32. “It’s about how the party speaks, the way it pitches its appeal. It’s vastly more important than who the next leader is.”

Meanwhile, the Tories have returned to power with a slim majority that very few – an exception being our own Peter Wilby, as he reminds us on page nine – thought they were capable of winning. Already some trenchant right-wingers, such as John Whittingdale, the new Culture Secretary (and scourge of the BBC), have been appointed to the cabinet. We face the prospect of a divisive EU referendum and £12bn of hastily and ideologically enforced cuts to the welfare budget, which will hurt the weakest and poorest. And the unity of the United Kingdom as a multinational polity remains imperilled. This is what defeat feels like. Has Labour got what it takes to absorb the pain and return stronger, ready to win? Or does it face another long ­period in the wilderness, speaking only to itself?

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

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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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