Ham-face: what do you do when your family love the politicians you despise? Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/WPA Pool/Getty
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What it’s like to be the lone left-winger in a right-wing family

My grandma thinks Cameron’s a charming, intelligent young man. I think he's a slippery, gammon-faced Putin-lite.

It was during a rather self-righteous conversation about where and when the Niqab should be banned that it really hit me. If life were the House of Commons, I would be staring at my entire family from the other side.

My father and his partner had invited me to stay with them in a cabin in the countryside. Not only did the prospect of a free holiday entice me, but I was curious to see what a few days away from the thinking, talking and writing about politics I did at work would do for my incipient wrinkles and growing cynicism.

But uninspiring weather and the subsequent cabin fever made for relaxation that turned swiftly to mild boredom, wine and finally, politics. I knew in the back of my mind that my family were all Conservative voters, but being reminded of their unfortunate affliction before the wounds of this year's general election were fully healed didn't make for a fun holiday activity.

I was born in South Shields, a deprived town in north-east England that earned its bygone riches on the docks. I come from a working-class Labour stronghold, and, I’d like to think, from ancestors who would be as disgusted as I am with the Conservatives’ neoliberal crusade.

We moved onto richer pastures and left the stark images of Britain’s true working class behind while I was still in single digits, but the backdrop to my formative years has stayed with me.

I know that coming from a working class background isn’t guaranteed to turn one into a raving socialist, just as much as having five middle names doesn’t guarantee entry into the Bullingdon club.

The conflicting views of Ed and David Miliband on how Labour should run the country are a good example of how nurture and background alone aren’t enough to define your politics. But a family of raving Tories with Geordie accents makes for a perplexing sight.

My mother’s career has involved several stints as an employee of the NHS. After my parents’ divorce, financial help from the state in the form of my free school meals and university maintenance grant (now loan – thanks to Osborne) helped alleviate their financial strain.

We also have a relative with learning difficulties, whose care home is suffering funding cuts. It's not as simple as north, poor and left versus south, rich and right, but Labour should be the natural party of my family nevertheless.

Any attempts to lure my more suggestible parent (my mother) away from the Conservatives have been fruitless. Before this year’s general election, I asked her why she was voting Conservative. “Because Ed Miliband is so negative,” she said. “Whenever I see him on TV, all he does is complain and say everything the Conservatives do is wrong.”

After narrowly avoiding a burst blood vessel, I told her this was the opposition’s job, unless the opposition was the Conservatives and they were backing Labour’s spending plan penny-for-penny before the financial crash. But let’s not talk about the financial crash, because according to the Browns, that was all Labour’s fault.

And it spreads further than my parents. My grandma thinks Cameron’s a charming, intelligent young man. I think he's a slippery, gammon-faced Putin-lite; an opinion she didn’t take to very well.

While on holiday, my father’s partner recounted a weird experience she’d had at the polling station on election day. She said the man in the booth next to her asked for help, in an Eastern European accent. “He didn’t know what to do, so I had to explain it to him. Then he asked me who he should vote for,” she said.

“I bet he just came over here to vote. I bet he wasn’t even a British citizen,” my father chimed in. In his defense, and to my relief, he stopped short of “send ‘em all back”.

For a long time I felt like I’d missed out because my parents didn’t really attempt to engage me in politics when I was younger. But being left to figure it out for myself has been a blessing in disguise.

The only way I’d pick the party that favours the rich, hides behind the much-debunked trickle-down theory and favours corporation over compassion is if I’d had been drilled into me from an early age that it was right.

It’s unfortunate that my family don’t see things the same way, but I think our bond will withstand our differences. Just so long our next holiday has less wine and better weather.

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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.

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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.