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The missing word in the Beckett Report: nationalism

Labour is still a world away from understanding what happened to it in England or Scotland, warns John Denham.

By common consent, Margaret Beckett worked hard to produce a balanced account of Labour’s defeat, successfully avoiding ‘handing victory’ to any of the party’s warring factions. But in one respect, Beckett’s report describes an election that is a far cry from what actually happened.

Although she recognises the scale of the defeat in Scotland (and Labour’s modest seat and vote gains in England), she doesn’t spell out that the political contests in those nations were very different. The battle with the SNP in Scotland had very little in common with English Labour’s confrontation with the Tories: the issues, the language, the imagery and the framing were all quite distinct. To read the report, you could be forgiven for thinking that Scotland was just a region of the UK where Labour did particularly badly.

Labour in Scotland didn’t just lose to any old political party; it lost to one that successfully framed its politics in the language of popular nationalism. It’s a mistake to lump popular nationalism together with all other forms of populism. Nationalism can be populist in irresponsibly evoking  simplistic and emotive solutions to complex problems, but it is not necessarily so. Nationalism can be a way of expressing a common sense of identity, direction and purpose. We might disagree with what they say, but that’s what the SNP appears to have achieved.

The costs of ignoring popular nationalism are clear from the report’s conclusion about Labour’s future direction. It calls for  “A vision for Britain” and continues “we must set out a vision for the country’s future, which shows both what the country needs and what we will contribute to its achievement”. For all those who either don’t see their country as Britain, or only partly as Britain, there is something missing here. Such old fashioned language betrays a deep seated hope that some form of ‘normal politics’ will soon reassert itself and we can go back to ignoring identity and nation and deal solely with the whole. It’s not going to happen. Either Labour learns to talk for Scotland (as well as for Britain) or we will continue to lose in that nation.

Maybe the report tacitly assumes that Labour’s Scottish battle is something separate. Certainly the analysis of the campaign issues are largely focussed on the arguments in England. But here, too, the report misses the emerging importance of distinct English themes in the 2015 campaign.

Most obviously, fears of the SNP ‘propping up a Labour government’ dominated the last two weeks of the campaign. The report rightly concludes that the impact on the result is controversial. It may not have swung millions of votes but almost certainly persuaded sufficient anti-Labour UKIP and LibDem voters to go Tory to keep Labour out. This helped to defeat both Labour and LibDem candidates. The media obsession with the maths of a hung parliament saved the Tories from scrutiny and obscured the Labour and LibDem messages, but no one can say the SNP wasn’t a real talking point on the doorstep.

The precise circumstances of the ’SNP threat’ are unlikely to reoccur, but, the election confirmed the emergence of large groups of English voters who now see elections in terms of ‘what is in the English interest’. The idea that there is an English interest, distinct from and possibly threatened by the interests of other parts of the UK is new. This feels like another genie that is not going back into the bottle any time soon. Studies after the election, including the British Election Survey, reveal sharp differences between the voting patterns of voters who identify as English and those who identify as British: the ‘English’ are more likely to vote to the right and more likely to be anti-EU. Put this together with the upward rise in English identity, and it’s clear Labour has a problem. Either the party finds a way to address and express the English national interest or it will risk losing the ear of a substantial section of the electorate.

Significantly, the Beckett report concludes that ‘no one envisaged’ Cameron’s call for English Votes for English laws’. Yet it was both predictable and predicted (including by myself); it was in the Tory manifesto, big hitters like Kenneth Clarke had come into line, and crucial ground work had been done by the Mackay Commission. The leadership did not want to envisage it because they did not recognise its potency, just as they signed up to ‘the Vow’ blithely ignoring the resentment this would fuel amongst English voters.

Across western Europe, once great social democratic parties are losing ground in the face of popular nationalist forces of right, left and centre. Labour needs to sense the mood before it goes the same way.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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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.