Another brick in the wall? Photo: Getty Images
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Labour need to get real: Jeremy Corbyn isn't the answer

What Labour needs is a competent team capable to winning back the centre ground. Jeremy Corbyn would keep Labour out of power for decades, warns Keiran Pedley. 

Shortly after the general election I wrote an article on this site about how Labour could win again. I was strangely optimistic. 2015 was bad but providing Labour learned the right lessons from defeat, victory in 2020 was possible. After all, the Conservative majority is small. The government has already abandoned plans to scrap the Human Rights Act and the Fox Hunting ban as a result. As long as Labour met its need to re-establish fiscal credibility head on and left no stone unturned in its bid to reconnect with the public a comeback was possible. It still is.

However, right now, all the signs are that the party seems determined to learn entirely the wrong lessons from its defeat in May. Rather than reach out to where the public is, many members have decided that, in the name of ‘differentiation,’ the old ways of unabashed socialism were right all along. Labour doesn’t need a new script, it should never have deviated so far from the old one. The answer lies in renationalising the railways, scrapping tuition fees (and presumably Trident) and completely rejecting anything that can be remotely labelled ‘austerity’.

Such sentiment has manifested itself in the now obvious surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn to be the next Labour leader. He now leads the way in CLP nominations whilst Stephen Bush, writing on this site last week, has seen private polling putting Corbyn as much as 15 points ahead on first preferences. The idea is that the Labour Party membership in 2015 is far to the left of that which narrowly chose David Miliband in 2010. If you have any doubts, just look at the way Liz Kendall has been treated – cynically labelled ‘Tory’ for daring to challenge the orthodoxy of the Labour left.

But is this all such a bad thing? It is clear from Osborne’s most recent budget that the working poor are going to suffer further under this government and that needs opposing. No complaints on that here. It is right to be critical of the Conservatives balancing the books on the back of the poor.

However, Labour’s issue has rarely been diagnosing problems but in providing credible solutions to them that the public see as deliverable. This is why in the 2015 General Election, Miliband policies such as the energy price freeze or scrapping ‘non-doms’ could be popular, the NHS could be the public’s number one issue and Miliband could lead Cameron on ‘understands people like me’ yet Labour still lost.  People didn’t buy that Labour could deliver. Solving this issue is key and a return to the 1980s socialist ideology doesn’t do it.

Being in opposition is hard. I like to use the metaphor of comparing it to playing snooker (stay with me).  Whilst your opponent is at the table there isn’t much else you can do but watch and wait your turn. To get back to the table your opponent has to miss but when they do you have to be ready. The point is the Conservatives are at the table, they are in government and call the shots. But they will miss from time to time and when they do, Labour must be ready. ‘Being ready’ means choosing a leader that the public can credibly see in Downing Street that picks their battles well. Someone that can regain the public’s trust in Labour to manage the economy, with all of the tough decisions that entails and someone that provides imaginative solutions to the critical issues facing the country. It’s about growing the economy, dealing with policy issues caused by Britain’s ageing population, providing the jobs (and skills) of the future and setting out Britain’s place in the world whilst keeping the country together.

Jeremy Corbyn is not that leader.

 

His campaign certainly offers a certain clarity in contrast to some of his opponents. He opposes austerity full stop and is relaxed about deficits and debt. I suspect this clarity is what appeals to many Labour members. He offers a comforting, left-wing, anti-Tory message. That’s fine. But he has offered precious little to convince this writer that his positions would carry the support of the wider public. He might be relaxed about public spending and immigration but they are not.

The reality is that if Labour moves too far left, the country will just keep returning Conservative governments. There is a reason why so many Conservatives want Corbyn as leader. His positions on issues ranging from renationalising industry to the Monarchy would be hung around his neck. The only reason they haven’t been so far is because his fellow candidates want his second preferences – especially now he is doing well – so they don’t want to attack him too much.

Deep down we know how a Corbyn leadership ends up. He would quickly be defined as a radical throwback to times past, Labour’s poll ratings would tank and MPs would move against him. A coronation of someone else would likely follow, much as the Conservatives did when they replaced Iain Duncan Smith with Michael Howard in 2003. Labour doesn’t make a habit of removing leaders but it is hard to see the PLP serving under a leader that they didn’t really want on the ballot in the first place for long.

But perhaps I am jumping the gun. Corbyn’s current momentum could merely be the “vent before the vote”, where Labour activists gather at CLP meetings to nominate the most left-wing candidate but actually vote for someone else in the end. In any case, CLP meetings are not always representative of the membership overall and even if Corbyn tops the ballot on first preferences, he is unlikely to have the breadth of support needed to actually win. A Corbyn victory is still not the most likely outcome.

But whoever wins, what matters most is the impact that this contest has on the Labour Party and its future direction. It is vital that the next Labour leader has the guts to lead the party in the direction it needs to go – with emphasis on the word ‘lead’.  This means making the primary focus of the Labour Party’s pursuit of power to be convincing the public that it deserves another chance. Reengaging with business and tough decisions on spending priorities will be needed.  Once in government it will be trusted to be progressive again, even transformative, but for now the task is to regain credibility. That, above all else, should be the next leader’s priority.

Labour only wins when it marries its core values to the reality of the day, delivering a vision for the country that commands broad support – and yes that means winning over Conservative voters too. Perhaps it will take the Labour membership another big defeat to really get this. I hope not. Otherwise, Labour in 2015 could become the Tories of 2001 – set for an almighty internal fight and an awful long way from being in power again. Labour members need to decide how much they really want to be in power – it’s time to get real.

Keiran Pedley is an elections and polling expert at GfK and tweets about politics at @keiranpedley.

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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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