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After Brexit, radicalism is Jeremy Corbyn's only chance of success

The battle over free movement should be a left-right issue. Labour should replace the immigration debate with class politics. 

Being on the Labour left at the moment feels a lot like how I imagine the last days of Rome. For a brief moment, we conquered the Labour party; now we are contemplating what to do with the some of the worst poll ratings in its history. In Jeremy Corbyn’s office, shadow Cabinet members stalk the corridors, pouring wine into the open mouths of passing press aides and advisers, many of whom are rushing to the exit. Most Labour MPs, having spent two years tearing down the city’s defences, cheekily shrug their shoulders. “We tried to stab him – hundreds of times”, they say. “Now let’s just wait for the end."

If the world feels like it is collapsing, that is because, on many fronts, it is. The Copeland by-election was the first time an opposition party had lost a seat in a by-election to the government since 1982. Even in London, Corbyn is, according to one poll, less popular than Paul Nuttall. Brexit is forcing Labour into such contortions that rising star Clive Lewis felt compelled to resign from the front bench. Across Europe, the new radical left is stagnating, although doing better than most social democrats, who are being annihilated. Meanwhile, the orange shadow of Donald Trump, the looming breakup of the UK and the faint prospect of war over Gibraltar give the situation a certain surreal, cinematic quality.

Demoralisation is a natural feeling for much of the left’s base. The new leadership promised to change politics, to give political expression to social movements, and to bring Labour the intellectual clarity it needed to cut through in an era of polarisation. That entire project is now on the brink – and it isn’t because of a few bad press performances. It is because, unlike much of its base, the leaders of the British left do not understand what Brexit means or how to deal with it. 

The idea that Corbyn secretly backed Leave is a myth, but it is certainly true that Labour is now failing to grasp the scale of what is happening. Brexit isn’t just part of a global right-wing populist insurgency, mirrored by Trump across the Atlantic. What the publication of the Great Repeal Bill has demonstrated is that it is also a minefield of legal and legislative measures – and with a whole new window for corporate influence on the state – that will rewrite Britain’s constitution and fatally undermine what little democracy we have.

Yet as Corbyn rose to the despatch box last week to challenge May on her Brexit strategy, having spent PMQs talking about police cuts and school funding, he did so having voted for it at every possible opportunity, and reserved his strongest objections for the government’s “complacency”. Faced with the worst political and economic crisis in living memory, Labour seems to want to talk about other, easier things. To move forward, it must bite the bullet and take sides. 

Taking sides in the Brexit debate isn’t necessarily about trying to remain in the EU. It certainly isn’t about becoming the party of the 48 per cent; that strategy may work for the SNP, but would ruin Labour. It is about drawing up a series of clear policies and fighting for them –and that ought to be the Labour leadership’s comfort zone. Brexit and Article 50 may have divided every area of the Labour movement, but the real battles – on free movement, for example – should be left-right issues. The right should be expected to pedal the idea that immigration is to blame for the housing crisis and falling living standards; the left should put across clearly articulated class politics as the alternative.

On the processes of Brexit, and on the issues that surround it, Labour suffers from a cocktail of toxic influences. On the right wing of the party, MPs openly advocate tougher immigration controls. On the left, two key intellectual influences are the Bennites and a school of thought traceable to the old Communist Party – who have in common a Eurosceptic, nationally rooted conception of the Labour left project, in many ways a reheated version of post-war social democracy. Add to that the chronic tactical conservatism of Labour as a whole and you get a party which cannot connect to either reality or its supporters on the main issue of the day.

With bold enough ideas, this could be a moment of renewal and opportunity for Labour – hitting back against nationalism, selling a forward-looking transformative politics to a mass audience. With basic assumptions about the direction of history – social progress, civil rights, limits on executive power – being eroded, there are all kinds of new allies and audiences for a form of socialism that can articulate a sharp alternative to the populist right and connect with a new layer of politicised people.

Like it or not, radicalism is still Labour’s only hope of electoral success, and the Corbyn project still carries the hopes of the left across much of the world. To save it from a spiral of demoralisation, Brexit must become a fight to be relished, not an awkward side issue.

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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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