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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 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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