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Why Labour MPs are starting to get excited about Yvette Cooper

In the invisible Labour leadership race, the former Welfare Secretary is in pole position. 

Just because there isn’t a vacancy, doesn’t mean there isn’t a contest. Although, until Theresa May’s shock decision to call a general election, most Labour MPs expected Jeremy Corbyn to lead the party into the next election, his would-be successors have all been quietly profiling for the top job. Think of it as the invisible Labour leadership contest. 

The last few months have been exceptionally good for Yvette Cooper, partly because several of her rivals had bad ones. Dan Jarvis wrote a long essay that was largely poorly received in the parliamentary Labour party, and, to compound the error, called up one MP who criticised the piece on Twitter to complain.

Keir Starmer, regarded by many as the favourite in the next contest, whenever it comes, has had a poor few months thanks to his perceived mishandling of the Article 50 debate. His decision to welcome the government’s ersatz concession of a “vote on the final deal” caused consternation among MPs. (I explain in more detail why the government’s concession wasn’t worth anything here.) “Bewilderment at why Keir jumping up and down like he’d won the lottery,” said one former frontbencher summing up the mood among their colleagues. It added to two complaints that is increasingly widespread among MPs: that Starmer has “no politics”, and that having been elected just two years ago, he has yet to acquire the necessary experience.

Although his position among party activists was probably strengthened by quitting the shadow cabinet to vote against Article 50, in the short term, it has done considerable damage to Clive Lewis’ prospects of getting enough nominations to make it onto the ballot. He is no longer the natural first choice of most of the 14 MPs who gave Corbyn their nominations out of shared belief rather than to lent nominations. But he has no reach into the PLP’s centre, let alone its right flank. There is also a feeling in the PLP that Starmer’s struggles in the Brexit brief show that the candidate should not be someone who has “only been an MP for five minutes” in the words of another member of the 2015 intake.

It’s not only that Cooper has become the consensus choice in the PLP through the failure of others: she is also seen to have used the role of Home Affairs Committee Chair well, with a series of effective questions. She also put Theresa May under the cosh well during the liaison committee – when all the select committee chairs meet the Prime Minister – and has delivered two effective questions to May at PMQs. What one MP described as a "bravura" performance at the PLP meeting yesterday has further increased the buzz around her among MPs. 

Her allies from last time are, for the most part, still behind her. One former Cabinet minister told me that “she has really decided to go for it now, and having had the last time to think about what she stands for, will be a much better candidate”.

But even less enthusiastic MPs, and opponents from last time around, are coming round. There is a strong feeling in the parliamentary party that whatever happens, Labour’s next leader must be a woman, and not just among the Women’s PLP. “I don’t think it’s time to talk about who the next leader is, whoever she may be,” one male MP said a few months back, “But it has to be a she, that I’m absolutely certain of.”

Others feel that what will be needed when Corbyn stands down is a safe pair of hands who will allow the various ginger groups – such as Labour Together and Red Shift – to continue developing ideas while a safe pair of hands steers Labour through tough times.

Another – a woman, but no natural supporter of Cooper – put it like this:  “I think it needs to be first of all, a sister. Second, someone who has been around, and isn’t going to fuck things up. And third, someone who can unite the PLP. So that sort of leads to Yvette, I guess."

Some caveats: a lot of the rising support for Yvette Cooper has been based around the idea that Corbyn might stand down before an election in 2020. Corbynscepticism is a broad creed in the parliamentary Labour party and my guess is that, if and when Jeremy Corbyn departs the scene, its internal unity will collapse pretty quickly. Although the Labour membership is fluid, immigration remains an important issue to many members and one that Cooper is on the wrong side of. But here's the thing: that only matters if the next Labour leadership election is contested. At present, no other candidate is even getting close to Cooper's levels of support in the PLP. If there is a heavy defeat on 8 June, I wouldn't be shocked if the parliamentary Labour party gives the leadership to Yvette Cooper by acclamation, just as they did with Gordon Brown.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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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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