Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: The new divides

It's time for the UK to address long-standing defects: our poor productivity, our regional imbalances, our lack of affordable housing and our weak vocational sector.

From the French Revolution onwards, politics has been defined by the distinction between left and right. In the UK and elsewhere, conservatives and socialists did battle along socio-economic lines. Class was the best predictor of voting behaviour. However, the division inaugurated by 1789 appears increasingly obsolete. The politics of left v right is being superseded by the politics of open v closed. In the UK, the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU split both the Conservatives and Labour into Remainers and Leavers. For the rest of this decade and beyond, British politics will be defined by Brexit, and attitudes towards immigration will be more important than those towards capitalism.

In the US, Donald Trump’s election similarly reshaped historical loyalties. His political programme of closed borders, higher government spending, trade tariffs and tax cuts borrowed from left and right. Like the Brexiteers, he managed to mobilise formerly inactive sections of the electorate.

Across Europe, nationalists are thriving by the same means. In France, the leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen, has attracted former Socialists and Communists by vowing to end “multiculturalism” and by promising a referendum on EU membership. In Germany, the xenophobic Alternative für Deutschland rejects Angela Merkel’s policy on refugees. In the Netherlands, the nationalist Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) continues to lead in opinion polls as this year’s general election draws near. Poland and Hungary are already governed by parties of the far right. Faced with this revolt, social democrats are struggling to maintain relevancy.

Though open v closed is the most salient new schism, it is not the only one. In this issue, we detail five others reshaping politics: graduates v non-graduates, old v young, owners v renters, white Britain v ethnic minorities and metropolitan v provincial. For the Conservatives and Labour alike, the challenge is to bridge these divides. Theresa May rightly recognised that the Brexit vote was not merely a rejection of the EU but a symptom of much deeper unrest. For many in the north of England and the Midlands, the referendum was a chance to protest against decades of neglect. Others voted Leave to reduce immigration – even knowing that economic growth could be harmed.

The lesson here is that the UK must address long-standing defects: our poor productivity, our regional imbalances, our lack of affordable housing and our weak vocational sector. Mrs May has already made progress in some of these areas. In housing, the government has abandoned its predecessor’s obsession with subsidising demand in favour of expanding supply. An additional £1.4bn has been announced for affordable homes, including those for rent. After making no mention of private tenants in their 2015 manifesto, the Conservatives have banned letting agent fees.

The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has rightly abandoned the goal of a budget surplus by 2020 in order to increase infrastructure investment and to soften planned welfare cuts. He has signalled that the triple lock (which ensures that the state pension rises by inflation, average earnings or 2.5 per cent, whichever is highest) could be abolished after the next general election. All of these measures will help to address the increasing gulf between the young (who endured the largest post-crash fall in standards of living) and the old (whose real incomes rose).

Yet even more than this, the government must unite Remainers and Leavers in a shared project of national renewal. In the postwar era, the National Health Service, the welfare state, the Open University and a Keynesian economic strategy helped ameliorate the class divide. The crises in living standards, social care and housing demand no less ambition today. Mrs May’s challenge is not merely to deliver Brexit. It is to make divided Britain united once more. 

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain

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