Show Hide image

Restive Labour voters, post-Brexit border controls and the ferocity of the Russian Ultras

The editor's note.

On a recent visit to Stockholm I had coffee with the veteran left-wing journalist Bengt Lindroth, whose latest book is The Revenge of the Voters: Populism and Nationalism. From the hotel lobby where we met you could see the magnificent neoclassical Swedish parliament building, the Riksdag, on its island setting. He ordered a double espresso and settled wearily into his chair. We talked about Brexit (“Could this be the shock the EU really needs to bring about necessary change?” he asked) and about the rise of anti-EU, nativist parties across the Nordic countries. He was interesting on Jimmie Åkesson and the Sweden Democrats, the Eurosceptic populists whose social conservatism and anti-migrant rhetoric have won considerable support among the working classes who feel alienated by the cosmopolitanism of the Swedish elite.

Swedish folk tales

In their earliest incarnation the Sweden Democrats were neo-Nazis. But since the emergence of the so-called Gang of Four (the group of students from Lund University led by Åkesson who took control over a decade ago) the party has finessed its message and embraced more mainstream populist positions, combining the politics of both left (welfare chauvinism) and right (xenophobia). In particular, Åkesson has successfully revived the expression “Folkhem” (“home for the people”), which was a benign slogan of the once-hegemonic Social Democrats in the 1930s and beyond. Today it resonates with a country queasy with anxiety about immigration.

Sweden occupies a huge land mass, with a remote, densely forested far north, but has a relatively small population of 9.8 million – 16 per cent of whom were born outside the country. The celebrated model of redistributive capitalism – the “Nordic system” – is fracturing because of the strain created by big inflows of migrants and refugees. “The social contract that once existed is coming apart,” Lindroth told me, in good, idiomatic English. “Year by year, step by step, the feeling grows that our politicians are not addressing the questions that most concern ordinary Swedes – law and order, immigration.” The Sweden Democrats have been demonised, Lindroth said: “This makes it more difficult to have an open discussion about immigration. The cultural liberals have controlled the debate. But which of the mainstream bourgeois parties represents the social conservatism of many working-class Swedes? Who speaks for them?”

Labour’s lost voters

In a different context, this is a question familiar to Labour MPs, especially those representing constituencies in northern England, where many socially conservative, working-class Labour voters favour Brexit. I’ve been told that some Labour MPs are ­reluctant to campaign for Remain in the north because the response from constituents has been so hostile.

Labour is an increasingly unhappy coalition of the metropolitan liberal left, public-sector workers, minority groups and the white working class. The London liberal left that swept Sadiq Khan to power in the mayoral election pulls the party in one direction, the often Ukip-sympathising, disaffected working class in another. And nationalism in Scotland has devastated Labour in its former heartland.

This week, Tom Watson, the deputy leader, spoke of the need to impose controls on freedom of movement within the EU. The polls have spooked Labour MPs: they don’t know what to do for the best. But how late it is, to paraphrase James Kelman, how late.

Marred performance

David Cameron’s uncharacteristically lacklustre performance on the Marr show last weekend contrasted with the supreme confidence of Nigel Farage. Cameron spoke like a man preparing for defeat: he delivered his rehearsed warnings with all the conviction of a fatigued actor reciting lines he’s come to despise. Farage is a self-styled radical – he once told me his hero was John Wilkes, the pamphleteer and parliamentary agitator – and no matter what you think of his politics, surely he has done more than most to bring Britain to the brink of Brexit. The Prime Minister is culpable for the mess in which he and his allies find themselves, scrambling to prevent the Brexiteers pulling off an astounding coup, which could well set in motion a chain of events that culminates in the break-up of the British state.

Need for Tweed

Here’s a question, though: if Scotland votes to leave the United Kingdom and join the European Union, how would a post-Brexit England control its border with the new independent state to its north? Scotland has a population of 5.3 million and needs immigrants to support an ageing population and power economic growth; Nicola Sturgeon makes the positive case for immigration and free movement. EU migrants would be welcome to live and work in Scotland, as they are at present in the UK, but not in our new utopian Little England.

Yet how would England prevent migrants moving from north to south across a porous border? Would we have security checkpoints and watchtowers? Passport controls? Would we see the desperate swimming across the River Tweed?

Ultra nasty

The ferocity of the Russian Ultras who attacked English football supporters in Marseilles seems to have surprised many. They should not have been surprised. Football hooliganism is rife in Russia and eastern Europe, with many gangs linked to far-right paramilitary groups. The Russian Ultras wore distinctive black T-shirts, gumshields and martial arts fighting gloves. They were sober, unlike the English, and knew exactly what they wanted and how to achieve it. Brice Robin, chief prosecutor of Marseilles, said that they were “extreme and well-trained”, “hyper-violent and hyper-fast”. Should we forget: the 2018 World Cup is to be held in Russia. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

0800 7318496