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Whatever the solution, Labour can't ignore its English problem

Those who disagree with Tristram Hunt's proposal of an English parliament must suggest alternatives.

Most of the reasons for Labour's general election defeat have been well-rehearsed: its leader wasn't viewed as an alternative prime minister, it wasn't trusted to manage the economy and it was at odds with voters on welfare and immigration. But there is another failing that has received far less scrutiny: the belief that the party was anti-English. The problem was visible as long ago as 2005 when the Conservatives won more votes than Labour in England and has grown consistently worse. As post-election polling by GQR found, 57 per cent said they were were "quite concerned"or "very concerned" that the party "put people from other countries before the interests of England". The rise of Scottish nationalism and the concurrent rise of English nationalism have cast Labour adrift. 

Despite this, as former cabinet minister John Denham recently wrote on The Staggers, the Beckett Report on the defeat failed to take account of this new political landscape. Its call for a "vision for Britain", he noted, neglected those "who either don't see their country as Britain or only partly as Britain". Unless it accepts this new reality, voters' alienation from the party will both widen and deepen.

Denham, whose former seat of Southampton Itchen was lost to the Conservatives (leaving Labour with just 12 of the 197 seats south of the Severn-Wash line), has founded the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University where Tristram Hunt will speak tonight. In his address, the former shadow education secretary will call for a referendum on the adoption of either an English parliament (his preferred option), regional assemblies or English Votes for English Laws ("the jury is still out"). A public vote, he will say, would allow England to "experience the same kind of democratic awakening" as Scotland and Labour should "lead it". The political logic is clear: by advocating a referendum, the party will signal that it trusts voters (having opposed a vote on the EU) and is at ease with the politics of English identity.

At present, he will say: "Our sense of Englishness matters to us more and more, and the Labour Party has fallen on the wrong side of that cultural divide. According to Jon Cruddas’s review into why the Labour Party lost the 2015 General Election, since 2005 voters who are socially conservative are the most likely to have deserted Labour. They value home, family and their country. They feel their cultural identity is under threat. They yearn for a sense of belonging and national renewal. Tradition, rules and social order are important to them. And, tragically, they feel that Labour no longer represents them, or understands their lives. In short, they felt we didn’t value England, and were not on the side of the English."

Most Labour MPs will likely disagree with Hunt on the need for an English parliament ("how very silly" shadow leader of the Commons Chris Bryant told me). Many argue that there is little demand among voters for a new political institution and that England's size makes a separate body incompatible with Westminster. But those who disageee with Hunt's solution must offer their own. The EU referendum, the SNP's hegemony in Scotland and the possibility of a second independence referendum will all raise the salience of the English question. And arithmetic alone dictates that Labour must transform its performance in England. With no sign of a revival in Scotland, almost all of the 106 gains the party will need to make after the boundary changes will be here. 

But many MPs believe that Jeremy Corbyn, far from answering the English problem, struggles to even recognise it. They lament how often his failure to sing the national anthem is raised by voters and fear that his stances on immigration, Trident and foreign policy are widening the divide between them and the electorate. Corbyn has struck a consciously patriotic note in several speeches, declaring in his Labour conference address: "[It’s] because I love this country, that I want to rid it of injustice – to make it fairer, more decent, more equal." But as Hunt suggests, far more dramatic intervention will be needed to begin to solve the English problem. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.