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Labour MP: In any other job, Jeremy Corbyn would have faced an industrial tribunal

Shadow minister Chi Onwurah argues that her leader would face constructive dismissal, “probably with racial discrimination thrown in”, over his treatment of her and Thangam Debbonaire.

There is nothing socialist about incompetence, I said in explaining my decision to vote no-confidence in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. But since then, it has been made clear to me that many prefer incompetent out-of-power socialism to what they perceive to be the alternative. At one CLP meeting I described how disappointed I had been that, while Jeremy’s leadership campaign had been based on engaging non-voters, it was Nigel Farage and the Leave camp who had inspired them rather than Jeremy’s half-hearted Remain. Surely that should give us all pause for thought?

“So you want us to become Ukip?” someone asked. It took me a while to realise it was a serious question until he and others made it clear that Jeremy is the only person they trust not to compromise on key Labour tenets like equality. If Jeremy lost they believe Labour would return to the focus-grouped managerialism of New Labour while moving to outflank Ukip on immigration and xenophobia, fusing Blairite soulless machine politics with the worst of Farage’s populism. Blairrage.

It is a measure of where we have got to that for many there is no in-between position between Labour led by Jeremy and a dystopian Blairrage Labour, indeed we have become so divided that even to point out that Jeremy’s popularity is a consequence of Blair’s managerialism provokes outrage on both sides.

But Jeremy is not the only person standing between Labour and xenophobia. The “Controls on Immigration” mugs were certainly a low point of our 2015 campaign but they provoked widespread condemnation across the party.   And while Jeremy has been a persistent protester against other peoples’ prejudice that is not the same as bringing about the changes we so desperately need.  Far from being the only route to greater equality in society in my personal experience Jeremy is not even the best person to ensure that within Labour.

In September Jeremy gave me the job of shadow minister for culture and the digital economy. In the January reshuffle he gave half the job to Thangam Debbonaire. As the leader, he had every right to do so; unfortunately he omitted to tell her or me. When he realised what he had done, he gave the role back to me, without telling Thangam. So far, so annoying, but to be fair uncertainty is part of every reshuffle.  However Jeremy then went on for the next two months refusing my insistence that he speak to Thangam, indeed refusing to speak to either of us, whether directly or through the shadow cabinet, the whips, or his own office. No one knew what he wanted us to do, no one was clear on what we should be doing.

Jeremy made it impossible for two of the very few BME women MPs to do their jobs properly, undermining both us and Labour’s role as the voice of opposition to the government. I had undertaken a hugely labour-intensive Freedom of Information request on library opening hours, correlating the results to demonstrate how they had fallen exponentially under the Tories. It was impossible to launch a Labour opposition campaign to protect libraries when no one knew if they were part of my brief or not.  All that work went to waste.

If this had been any of my previous employers in the public and private sectors Jeremy might well have found himself before an industrial tribunal for constructive dismissal, probably with racial discrimination thrown in – given that only five per cent of MPs are black and female, picking on us two is statistically interesting to say the least. Indeed as Thangam was undergoing treatment for cancer at the time he could have faced disability action as well. In any other job I would have called on my union for support in confronting an all-white management which prevented two of its few black employees from doing their jobs. I would have expected the Leader of the Labour Party to condemn such ineffectual management which allowed such abuse.

But Jeremy dismissed criticism that he was undermining his shadow ministers - just as he had earlier dismissed criticism that not appointing a woman to any of the great offices of state showed a lack of commitment to gender equality. He would decide what the great offices of state were. As I have said previously, being a white man comes with many privileges. Deciding what constitutes gender or ethnic equality isn’t one of them.

It takes more than words to effect change. Weak leadership matters because without strong progressive leadership it is those who do not have the supporting ‘old boys’ networks who suffer most and that tends to be women and minorities. Heidi Alexander, Lilian Greenwood, Sharon Hodgson and Thangam Debbonaire have all detailed the difficulties of working effectively under Jeremy only to be dismissed as “thin-skinned careerists”. One of my own constituents said the fact that there are so many tales of bad management “proved” it was a plot.

Jeremy can certainly be relied upon to resist any pressure to usurp Ukip’s territory. Unfortunately it takes more than protesting other peoples’ prejudice to bring about change. It takes organisation, communication and action. That is what has been lacking under his leadership.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy. 

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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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