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5 things we learned from the leaders’ debates for the smaller parties

“I’m not Natalie.”

When Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are away, what conversations happen among the smaller party leaders? Do they all agree about how nefarious the government is and hopeless the opposition is and then hold hands and form a progressive alliance?

Not likely.

Here are the five things we learned from ITV’s debate between SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron and Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas. A panel that ended rather frostily, with Wood refusing to shake hands with Nuttall, and only the most cursory of handshakes between Farron and Lucas.

1 Paul Nuttall thinks all women look the same

The Ukip leader addressed two out of three women on the panel as “Natalie”. None of them are called Natalie. Perhaps he was thinking of former Green party leader Natalie Bennett. Or the Scot Nats. Or the actor Natalie Wood, instead of Leanne Wood. Either way, a massive and enjoyable gaffe from a man who will never, try as he might, be mistaken for a Nigel.

2 “I agree with Tim”

The phrase “I agree with Tim” popped up a number of times during the debate. And not just as a hashtag on the Lib Dem press office’s Twitter feed. Nicola Sturgeon said it, as did – believe it or not – Paul Nuttall. The phrase is reminiscent of the “I agree with Nick” debates of Cleggmania prior to the 2010 election, but also indicates a problem for the Lib Dems. If they have Sturgeon on one side and Nuttall on the other agreeing with them, they’re back in the position they were in before the 2015 election when they were so badly trounced – middle-of-the-road is not an election winner, as many senior Lib Dems concluded following the election result, after a campaign of trying to be Labour with a brain, and the Tories with a heart. And even if Farronmania became a thing, it wouldn’t even get them to small coalition party status this time round.

3 Not a good look for Labour and the Tories...

The received Westminster wisdom is that there is little point in Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May taking part in these debates. It is pointless making themselves vulnerable alongside leaders who have nothing to lose – or lowering themselves to the same level as the smaller parties in Parliament, the argument goes. Perhaps, but in an election where a thumping Tory victory is thought to be a foregone conclusion, and a divided Labour is an unattractive choice, these party leaders certainly sound refreshing. It’s considered “safer” by voters to back parties that will never take power when they know what the election result will be, and strong performances, particularly by good media performers like Caroline Lucas, will boost this sentiment.

It didn’t help matters that both Labour and the Conservative press offices tweeted along to the debate, picking apart the answers, despite their leaders refusing to take part:

4 …but this is very much a general election of two personalities

Unlike Cleggmania and the ensuing coalition in 2010, and the multi-party excitement in the build-up to the 2015 election, the debate highlighted that this year’s general election is only about two parties: the Tories and Labour. With the polls predicting a stonking majority, the smaller parties’ proposals feel like they have less weight than previous years because, for the first time in a while, there’s no prospect of coalition or minority government.

And it’s not only about the two main parties. It’s about two individuals in particular. The Conservative campaign is running a presidential bid for government, calling itself “Theresa May’s Team”, and playing down the party’s name, whereas Labour’s campaign bus and many of its MPs are attempting to do the opposite, in response to Corbyn’s abysmal personal ratings. There are only two people who are really shaping the election result, and neither of them was here.

5 It’s not all about Brexit

Strangely, considering two of these politicians (Farron and Nuttall) have hinged their campaigns on the subject of Brexit, all the party leaders were least convincing when they were discussing the B-word. Perhaps it’s because the “Re-Leaver” theory (that many of those who voted Remain have accepted the referendum result and don’t want the result reversed) resonates, or maybe it simply feels stale to stage a rerun of the referendum campaign, but their ideas on housing, climate change, education and health were more compelling than their stance on how (or whether) the UK should leave the European Union.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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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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