Labour's acting leader Harriet Harman speaks at the party's HQ in Brewer's Green. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Has Harriet Harman just come out against Andy Burnham?

Labour's acting leader warns the party not to choose "somebody who we can feel comfortable with" but who can "command the confidence of the country". 

Harriet Harman is determined to use her time as Labour's acting leader to do more than merely mind the shop. She wants to move the party to what she regards as a more politically and economically credible position. This is causing tensions with others at the top of Labour. At the most recent shadow cabinet meeting, Andy Burnham warned against offering too little opposition to austerity, prompting Harman to reply: "But Andy, we lost that argument. You may have noticed that we lost the election." Burnham, in the words of one shadow cabinet member, "winced" in response and was not defended by any of his supporters. 

When asked about the exchange on The Sunday Politics, Harman's response was revealing: "I do say to all those people who are going to be voting in the leadership election, think not who you like and who makes you feel comfortable - think who actually will be able to reach out to the public and actually listen to the public and give them confidence, so that we can have a better result next time than we did last time. The point is not to have somebody who we can feel comfortable with, the point is to have somebody who can command the confidence of the country and that's what they should have in their mind. There's no point doing choice in a disappointed rage, we've got to be doing choice for the future."

Her answer sounded like a rejection of Burnham, the frontrunner, who has frequently been attacked as "the comfort zone" candidate and as "continuity Miliband". It could even be interpreted as an endorsement of Liz Kendall ("not to have somebody who we can feel comfortable with"), who is trailing in fourth place having adopted the toughest line of any of the contenders on the deficit and welfare. Harman will not formally endorse any candidate but by making her views so clear, she has intervened decisively in the debate. 

Labour's acting leader also used the interview to announce that the party would not oppose the reduced household benefit cap (£23,000 in London and £20,000 elsewhere) or the two-child limit on tax credits. "We won't oppose the welfare bill, we won't oppose the household benefit cap, I mean, for example, what they've brought forward in relation to restricting benefits and tax credits for people with three or more children. What we've got to do is listen to what people round the country said to us and recognise that we didn't get elected - again ... They want us to listen to their concerns and we've got to recognise why it is that the Tories are in government and not us, not because people love the Tories particularly but because they didn't trust us on the economy and benefits. We have to listen to that and respond." 

Update: An aide to Harman emphasises that she made the same points in her speech at the outset of the leadership contest and that her words should not be interpreted as favourable or disfavourable to any candidate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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