David Cameron addresses the UK border force. Photo:Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The question that Labour's leadership hopefuls must answer: how to win the European referendum

My appeal today to the candidates at Westminster is to stop just telling us you want a referendum, and to start telling us how you're going to win it.

On a day when the media is dominated by so-called "demands" David Cameron is presenting to the European Summit, once again the British public is seeing the political agenda on Europe set by the Tories and UKIP, one whose narrative is firmly Eurosceptic.

Labour MEPs pursue European reform each and every day and Labour has our own clear set of proposals for reform which can and should be developed further in the new political context.

Indeed if David Cameron is telling the truth that his objective is Britain's national interest and not just that of his own party, he should take care to include Labour in the EU reform debate - in Westminster and in Brussels.

And whilst offering no blank cheques, Labour should be ready to play our own constructive part.

Yet the potential leadership and deputy leadership candidates have had very little to say so far about the Europe issue.

The one response which seems to have become de rigeur  for the contenders is that Labour must now support the holding of the EU referendum.

But with a Tory majority in Westminster, they have to show more ambition than opening or closing the stable door after that particular horse has already bolted.

There will be a referendum, that's now the settled will.

So if all the Labour candidates do is now to support the referendum as a process rather than taking on the argument about Europe as an issue, this risks becoming yet another "dog whistle" on the unspoken false assumption that Euroscepticism wins votes.

As research repeatedly demonstrates, not only are Labour members and voters firmly pro-European in a way which is not always acknowledged in Westminster, but there is scant evidence whilst Eurosceptics may have succeeded in setting the terms of public debate, that this has had any real impact on how people actually vote.

That is not to be complacent about the outcome of the EU referendum which may come as soon as next May, on which our party's new leadership will have to hit the ground running as soon as their own election is completed.

The historic damage to our country and its place in the world if the result goes the wrong way, means it is unthinkable for Labour to do anything else.

But my appeal today to the candidates at Westminster is to stop just telling us you want a referendum, and to start telling us how you're going to win it.

And that won't just be about technical amendments to European legislation and institutional processes, important as these are.

Labour Euro MPs will be ready to engage with you on these - it's our job to do so.

Instead, if winning the leadership for our whole party is about proving vision and mettle, being prepared to go to the 'dark places' where Labour needs to do more, then Europe should be an issue in your campaign now.

Show the membership and the country you can and will win the hearts and minds of the British people on Europe, firmly challenge the Eurosceptic agenda and set a different Labour narrative. 

The next Labour leader has to show how he or she will play a decisive role in winning the referendum because the country of which he or she aspires to be Prime Minister, is one you and we want to be confidently engaged as an active and influential European member state.

I could have written this article putting my own humble contribution to the debate on how this might be achieved, but instead I am asking the future leadership of our party to do so themselves.

We have to show that whilst David Cameron is content to whistling for a European dog which he sees as running wild in British politics, we are walking ahead, have it under control with the lead firmly in our hands. 

Richard Howitt MEP is Labour Member of the European Parliament for the East of England and Chairman of the European Parliamentary Labour Party. He tweets @richardhowitt.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

0800 7318496