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Could the 2017 general election turn Wales blue?

The Conservatives have a chance to capture both the Leave Labour and the Ukip vote. 

For almost a century, general elections in Wales have been about Labour victories. Labour got the most votes in Wales for the first time in the 1922 general election, and it has done so at every general election since then. But this could just be the election where that formidable run comes to an end. Yes, things really are that bad for Labour.

Labour dominance in Wales has long meant Conservative weakness - the Tories always do worse in Wales than in England. But 2015 saw jubilant Tories across Wales celebrate their best general election result since the 1983 Thatcher landslide. Now they have realistic prospects of further advances. Even Bridgend - not won by the Tories since 1983, and held for the National Assembly by Labour First Minister Carwyn Jones - looks very winnable. Not only do the Conservatives face an enfeebled and divided Labour party; Theresa May's bold pitch for a Brexit mandate will likely win significant support in Wales. Almost the entire Welsh political establishment supported Remain here last year. But the Welsh people voted Leave, and the polling evidence suggests that they have not changed their mind. A Brexit-focused campaign could be particularly problematic for Labour in its most iconic Welsh bastions: all of the south Wales valleys voted Leave, many by substantial margins.

For Plaid Cymru this is an election they had not planned on and do not want. The Welsh nationalists have substantially thinner resources than their Scottish sister party, and did not want to be campaigning for anything other than the Welsh local council elections in 2017. The party has had internal problems aplenty in its National Assembly group, and could have done without the sort of profile that a general election campaign may bring. As in 2015, Leanne Wood's profile will likely benefit from the campaign exposure; but this did little electorally for her party then, and may do no more two years on. Labour's problems give Plaid realistic hopes of gaining the Ynys Mon seat, but there are few other potential positives to them from another election where the main focus will be on Britain-wide parties and issues.

For the Welsh Lib Dems, by contrast, this election may just offer them a way back after several cataclysmic years. In both the 2014 European election and in 2015, the party had an even lower vote share in Wales than in England and Scotland, while last year they were wiped out as a National Assembly party. But having positioned themselves as the voice of Remainers, a Brexit-focused campaign may offer them greater relevance. Such an appeal may cut little ice in much of Eurosceptic Wales, but could, for instance, give the party realistic hopes of regaining Cardiff Central - a student-heavy seat lost to Labour last time, but which backed Remain last June.

Finally, what of that rather strange entity, Ukip in Wales? The party has been on a roll in recent years: almost winning the 2014 European election, gaining more than 13.5 percent of the vote in 2015, and entering devolved politics with seven AMs elected last year. But since last May Ukip have largely been a shambles in the Assembly - and two of the seven AMs they elected no longer even sit in the Ukip group. With Theresa May's election pitch, and broader political strategy, having occupied much of Ukip's ideological turf, and the party continuing to feud internally, might this election be the beginning of the end for Ukip in Wales?

The one thing we can say for sure is that an early election means that the planned boundary changes will not go ahead. That has particularly big implications for Wales, which had been scheduled to lose its historic over-representation in the House of Commons, and see a drop from 40 to 29 MPs. For as long as election observers can recall, that over-representation has worked to the benefit of Labour and the detriment of the Conservatives. Could 2017 be the year when that ceases to be the case?

 

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff 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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