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Can the Labour party rise to the task of challenging Brexit?

Without strong parliamentary leadership and clearer direction from Labour, a broad-based challenge to hard Brexit will be impossible.

In the celebrated “New Times” edition of Marxism Today of October 1988, the issue of the future of Europe was simply posed. It was not a question of “if” but “how much” and “with what outcomes”. Retreat to the nation state was unimaginable. Thatcherism had transformed the landscape of Britain’s political economy. The project was now to extend market liberalisation to western Europe, not withdraw from the common market. The British left had no choice but to engage on European terrain.

Fast-forward three decades and Thatcher’s heirs are pursuing Brexit to complete the tasks that she left unfinished. They aim for the total dismantling of tariffs, further deregulation of labour and product markets and corporate tax reductions. Britain will be reinvented as the “world island” of its imperial imagination, only this time buccaneering without the gunboats: east of Suez reborn as an entrepôt for east-Asian capitalism.

This is the hardest of all Brexits, one in which the UK leaves the European Union without a deal. It is a political project being pursued by an emboldened faction within the Conservative Party that is now powerful, not marginal. Its transformation from a cranky, obsessive fringe, roaming the wilderness during the New Labour years and kept safely quarantined during the coalition, to a significant force in British politics occupying high office has been remarkable. It is also deadly serious. The “World Trade Organisation option” – until recently inconceivable beyond the pages of think-tank pamphlets – is now canvassed as a plausible national ambition.

Yet, if Thatcherism was a project of the “free market and the strong state”, as Andrew Gamble memorably wrote, the unionist nation state will be tested to destruction by a Brexit on these terms. Northern Ireland has lost its unionist majority for the first time since partition. It will not tolerate the return of a hard border with the Republic of Ireland. Scotland has a determined, strategically astute nationalist leadership. It threw down the independence gauntlet to the Prime Minister just as she sent Article 50 up for royal assent. A hard Brexit made in southern England could yet break the Union.

How has it come to this? The trade unions are introverted, their attention elsewhere. Capital is strangely quiescent, its different sectors working out their options. The old Tory industrial interests have long since withered, leaving only the Macmillanite grandees of the party to issue rebukes to their government. And, in sharp contrast to the early 1970s when Britain joined the common market, the conservative press is now almost wholly, often viscerally, Eurosceptic. The hostility to immigration that it has nurtured for years is now widely shared in society, emboldening the Prime Minister to elevate immigration control to priority boarding in national policy.

Politically, the biggest factor is the weakness of the centre left in England. The Lib­eral Democrats are still recovering from catastrophic defeat. They are spirited and their pro-Europeanism has the merit of authenticity. Yet they cannot lead a liberal fightback on their own. It is Labour’s death spiral that truly enfeebles progressive Britain. The party is divided on Europe once again, but this time it is a paltry kind of division: electoral, not principled or ideological. Its MPs face in different directions depending on which parts of the country they represent.

The Conservatives’ electoral supremacy appears assured, in large part because it is unassailable among the crucial voting bloc of older voters, for whom Theresa May’s conservatism of unfussy solidity and ordered hierarchy is tailor-made. The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up. Infighting aside, Corbynism is invisible now. It has no secrets to conceal.

Without strong parliamentary leadership and clearer direction from Labour, a broad-based challenge to hard Brexit will remain out of reach in the near future. Absent a parliamentary bloc capable of uniting Labour MPs with Scottish Nationalists, Liberal Democrats and Remain Conservatives, the terms of Brexit will remain an internal argument in the Conservative Party, communicated in WhatsApp groups of Eurosceptic MPs. The political dynamics will only change once the real negotiations start, after France and Germany have new governments and the economic reality of what Brexit means start to bite.

But whether Brexit is hard, soft or reversible, the UK will not be hammered back into unitary shape by an intransigent Conservative unionism. That is a statecraft that preferred suppression to accommodation over Irish Home Rule, and it will fail now, as it did then.

The UK needs a new, quasi-federal settlement, involving not just greater devolution to Scotland and Wales and significant flexibility for Northern Ireland but national recognition for England and decentralisation of power to English cities and counties, rather than a technocratic, ahistorical regionalism. Elections in May will produce a new crop of English city and county mayors. They need to give voice to a progressive Englishness and help rebalance the Brexit debate.

At root, the problem facing progressive parties across Europe is how to unite the new middle class of sociocultural professionals with working-class voters and sections of the private-sector middle class. The challenge is unusually tough in the UK, where social class and age inequalities in voter turnout are pronounced. There are small signs of revival in Europe. Portugal has shown that a coalition of the broad left can govern successfully, while contesting eurozone austerity. Under the leadership of Martin Schulz, the SPD is mounting a strong challenge to Merkel’s hegemony in Germany. Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron may succeed in rousing a centrist liberalism in France.

Like 1968, 2016 was a defining year in global politics, a moment of punctuation in historical time. We are now living through the messier, more complex aftermath. In these new times, politics will be highly charged and deeply contested, just as they were in the 1970s. Building coalitions – intellectual and political – will be imperative. Otherwise, the emerging new constitutional and economic settlement for Britain will be shaped, once again, by the right. 

Nick Pearce is Professor of Public Policy & Director of the Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition

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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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