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Brexit is the left's great chance to rid Britain of its bankers

Exiting the single market is a one-off chance to remake the economy, says Neil James. 

Post-referendum, there has been a curious role-reversal in British politics. While the Tories have done their level best to avoid discussing the European question, it seems like Labour cannot stop banging on about Brexit. The latest spat began when Jeremy Corbyn criticised some of the more neoliberal aspects of EU membership. The backlash was immediate, with Owen Smith accusing his leadership rival of putting British jobs at risk, and others demanding that Britain remain a full member of the single market.

These reactions are in part attributable to the politics of the leadership election: scorn is now many Labour MPs’ default reaction to any Corbyn statement. But it also reflects some longstanding assumptions about the means and ends of the British Left.

Since the 1990s, the Labour Party has been dominated by those who believe that social democracy is not just compatible with but dependent upon a dynamic open economy. According to this theory, free trade and competitive markets drive economic growth at the aggregate level. Provided the beneficiaries of growth pay their taxes, this will mean more resources available to fund vital public services, and to distribute to those in greatest need. While globalisation generates both winners and losers, the assumption is that the winners will win by a big enough margin to more than compensate for the losers’ losses. Because the economy as a whole benefits from cheap imports from the likes of China, ample money can be set aside to ensure that manufacturing workers who lose their jobs will be supported in learning new skills, and finding new roles where they can be more productive.

This view is as laudable in its aims as it is ignorant of British political reality. In practice, those who have benefited most from the UK’s open economy have been extremely reluctant to accept the elevated levels of tax necessary to compensate their less fortunate fellow citizens. Financial services companies in particular have repeatedly emphasised how mobile they and their star performers are, threatening to relocate if faced with a tax burden that they view as excessive. Furthermore, the stigma that public opinion attaches to “benefit scroungers” makes it politically impossible for government to pay an adequate level of compensation to those who end up on the losing side of globalisation. This unholy alliance of big business and the small-minded kept both Kinnock and Miliband out of office, and unless it can be overturned no genuinely Left-wing leader will ever win a British general election.

Exit from the single market offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Left to reconfigure the British political landscape. Without passporting arrangements that will preserve the pre-eminence of the City in the European market, our financial services sector will be far smaller and less influential. Moreover, free of the EU’s onerous rules on state aid, government can replace Britain’s Byzantine system of tax credits and benefit payments with an activist industrial policy that focuses on better jobs, better distributed across the country as a whole. By preventing the collapse of key industries and sponsoring new ones, government can revitalise the individuals and communities that have been left behind by globalisation. Unprotected, these people would be depicted as the dole scum of tabloid demonology; backed by the state, they become the hard-working families beloved by the British media.

Obviously, state intervention is no panacea. It means subsidising inefficient businesses, and constraining the investment and talent available to more productive sectors of the economy. It curbs the creativity of the market at the same time as it mitigates its destructive impulses. There is a danger that intervention becomes a safety net for obsolete business models and bad management, rather than a parachute used selectively to help individuals and communities transition to a more sustainable state of affairs. Nevertheless, used carefully and sparingly, it can be a more politically acceptable, more dignified, and more humane way of supporting people than the current benefits system.

Yes, maybe this is not as desirable as full membership of the single market, with an open dynamic economy coupled with a tax-and-spend state that ensures that the proceeds of growth are shared fairly across the whole of the country. But such a scenario is a political mirage. If a Labour government were negotiating Brexit with Brussels, perhaps it could simultaneously negotiate a new deal with the British people, places and businesses that have benefited most from the open economy that EU membership has entailed. Perhaps a Labour government could offer these elites continued access to the single market in exchange for a credible commitment to subsidise those who have been left behind. But with no prospect of a general election or an electable leader in sight, Labour MPs should focus on what they can achieve here and now.

The only thing that “Brexit means Brexit” means for sure is that things will have to change. Labour MPs need to snap out of their denial and develop a strategy, a clear understanding of what aspects of the EU settlement they want to preserve and which they would rather jettison. They must aim for the best possible access to the single market that is compatible with these objectives, rather than aspiring to Remain in all but name.

The Conservative majority is wafer thin, and the government remains deeply divided over when and how to leave the EU. Labour MPs could play a decisive role in shaping Britain’s European future for the better, while simultaneously revitalising their Party’s own electoral prospects. All they need do is to stop chasing an impossible dream, and start contemplating some unusual alliances. They could begin by teaming up with their own party leader.

Neil James worked for a member of the Shadow Cabinet in the run-up to the 2015 general election. He writes about British politics and international affairs.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.