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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 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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