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John McDonnell's speech: big on vision, short on detail

The shadow chancellor's commitment to tackling the deficit was not matched by a foolproof plan. 

John McDonnell, for so long the Robespierre of the left, is on a mission to reinvent himself. Labour's new shadow chancellor began his first conference address by promising that it would not be a "rant". And it wasn't. The man who has previously called for the IRA to be honoured, joked about assassinating Margaret Thatcher and declared of Tory minister Esther McVey, "Why aren't we lynching the bastard?", eschewed such violent rhetoric.

Instead, he offered an often wonkish account of how he aspired to change "the economic discourse in this country". There were unlikely whoops and cheers from delegates as he announced the membership of his Economic Advisory Committee ("including Joseph Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty, Professor Mariana Mazzucato, Simon Wren Lewis, Ann Pettifor and former member of the Bank of England Monetary Committee, David Blanchflower") and promised that Bob Kerslake, the former head of the civil service, would lead a review into "the operation of the Treasury itself." Setting out his defining dividing line with the Conservatives and his predecessor, he vowed to "oppose the cuts to our public services". But seeking to redefine the terms of debate, he pledged that Labour would make its own "cuts" - but to the corporate welfare system, not "the number of police officers on our streets or nurses in our hospitals or teachers in our classrooms." 

When Ed Miliband delivered his conference speech last year, he was castigated for failing to mention the deficit. It was a charge that McDonnell quickly insulated himself from. Labour, he vowed, would "tackle the deficit" through "aggressive" action to "force people like Starbucks, Vodafone, Amazon and Google and all the others to pay their fair share of taxes." But there was no explanation of how. Combined with the promise of "people's quantitative easing" in times of anaemic growth, the impression that Labour relies on a magic money tree risks only being reinforced. McDonnell assured delegates that Labour would not fall into the "trap" set by George Osborne in the form of his fiscal charter (which commits the government to achieving an overall surplus by 2020). But there was no clarity today on how the party would vote on the document. McDonnell moved delegates with the old cry that "another world is possible" and his vow to provide 100,000 homeless children with "a decent and secure home in which to live." But again, just how the new world would be born was unclear. 

It was the political, rather than the economic, content of the speech that was perhaps most notable. The loudest applause from delegates came when McDonnell appealed to those MPs who refused to serve under Jeremy Corbyn to "come back and help us succeed". The appeal was offered "in the spirit of solidarity" but to many on the outside, as one MP told me, "it sounded like a threat". Corbyn, by contrast, told me that "All Labour MPs have got a role to play, all Labour MPs have got a contribution to make" when I interviewed him. Those moderates who chose to take shadow cabinet posts did so in part because they fear being blamed if the new leadership fails. McDonnell's call for all MPs to "help us succeed" heightens the chance that those on the outside will be. 

George Eaton is political editor of 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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