TIME Outer Space

Russia Says It’s Putting Another Man on the Moon…By 2030

Soyuz TMA-12M Prepares To Launch
Joel Kowsky—NASA/Getty Images The Soyuz TMA-12M rocket launches to the International Space Station, March 26, 2014 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

One giant leap for mankind, again

Russia’s space agency said Tuesday it will launch a “full-scale” exploration of the Moon as part of a long-term mission to get a human being on the lunar surface for the first time in decades.

The head of Roscomsos, Oleg Ostapenko, said that designs were already underway for a manned spacecraft that he estimated could reach the moon by the end of the next decade. “By that time, based on the results of lunar surface exploration by unmanned space probes, we will designate [the] most promising places for lunar expeditions and lunar bases,” Ostapenko said, according to a translation by Russian state-owned news agency ITAR-TASS.

The mission was announced at a government meeting chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who has previously threatened to sever ties with American space agencies over the West’s reproach of Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis.

“At the end of the next decade, we plan to complete tests of a super-heavy-class carries rocket and begin full-scale exploration of the Moon,” Rogozin said.

TIME China

Uighur Academic’s Daughter Faces Lonely Road After His Life Sentence on Separatism Charges

Ilham Tohti
Andy Wong—AP Ilham Tohti

It was supposed to be an adventure. It was Feb. 2, 2013, and Ilham Tohti, a Beijing-based professor and writer, and his 18-year-old daughter, Jewher Ilham, were on their way from China to the United States. He was to start a year-long residency at Indiana University, she was tagging along to help him settle in. They got to the airport, checked their bags, and made their way through the gleaming terminal. But at immigration, they were stopped.

Security personnel took them to a small room where they sat for several hours. Eventually, they informed them that Ilham Tohti could not leave. Jewher, then 18, was put on a flight to Chicago. She landed in the U.S. alone, with no money and only rudimentary English. “I was so afraid,” she says.”I did not know what to do.”

So began the journey of Jewher Ilham. With the help of a family friend, she made her way safely to Indiana. But she has not seen her father since the airport. And she may never see him again.

On the morning of Sept. 23, Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life in prison on charges of separatism. He is a leading advocate for the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim minority that has long bristled under Beijing’s rule. His brutal detention, closed-door trial and harsh sentence are yet more signs that when it comes to certain issues, the ruling Chinese Communist Party will tolerate zero dissent.

Ilham Tohti’s case comes at a time when his native Xinjiang is experiencing a rise in violence. The Chinese government says the upheaval in its far northwestern territory, home to the Uighurs and other minority groups, is the work of extremists with links to foreign terror. Though Tohti often wrote about his desire for inter-ethnic harmony, officials have linked him to the recent unrest. “Tohti encouraged fellow [Uighurs] to use violence,” reported Xinhua, a state-backed newswire. They also faulted him for “making domestic issues international.”

Rights groups say the charges are trumped-up and the conviction amounts to political scapegoating. “Ilham was only exercising his right to free expression, for which he should not be imprisoned” read a statement from China Human Rights Defenders, an NGO. “The government is trying to lay blame on him for recent violent incidents and divert attention from its own policy failures that have contributed to rising ethnic tensions.”

Jewher Ilham has always maintained her father’s innocence, and from her new base in Bloomington, Indiana, she has done what she can to clear his name. When she first arrived in the U.S., her father’s friend and colleague, Elliot Sperling, helped get her into English classes. At first, she was unable to communicate in English, and Sperling served as a round-the-clock Chinese-to-English translator. In April 2014, just over a year into Ilham’s studies, she testified before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. She spoke about their fateful trip to the airport, her father’s detention and torture, and the hardships faced by her brothers and stepmother back home. A month later, she accepted the PEN Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award on her father’s behalf.

“I had never imagined that I would be in such a situation; I never thought that one day my father would be imprisoned in Xinjiang and I would be on the other side of the world, trying my best to speak for him,” Ilham said.

But speak she did, beautifully: “My father Ilham Tohti has used only one weapon in his struggle for the basic rights of Uyghur of Xinjiang: words, spoken, written, distributed and posted,” she said. “This is all that he has ever had at his disposal, and all he has ever needed. And this is what China finds so threatening.”

When I interviewed Jewher in August she seemed determined, but tired. She said she started each day by typing her dad’s name into Google, searching for news about his case. “I hate the feeling that I have to learn information about my father on the Internet,” Jewher said. She often gets early morning calls from journalists—appreciated but tough to balance with mid-term exams.

I did not have the heart to call this morning, the day her father was sentenced to life. But I will be thinking of her. She is young and brave, but so very far from home.

TIME faith

Pope Francis Keeps Silent on Syria Strikes

Pope Francis arrives with his popemobile at the Catholic University in Tirana, on September 21, 2014.
Filippo Monteforte—AFP/Getty Images Pope Francis arrives with his popemobile at the Catholic University in Tirana, on September 21, 2014.

The pontiff's decision not to comment on latest airstrikes may be as close as he comes to an endorsement — but it has its risks

One voice has so far remained quiet since the United States and five allied Arab nations launched airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) late Monday: That of Pope Francis.

The Holy Father’s silence is a complete contrast to his all-out effort a year ago this month—almost to the week—to prevent U.S. military strikes against the Syrian regime. Then, Pope Francis dominated the news cycle with his message opposing U.S. intervention. He wrote a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, host of the G-20 summit that President Barack Obama was attending, urging leaders to oppose military intervention in Syria: “To the leaders present, to each and every one, I make a heartfelt appeal for them to help find ways to overcome the conflicting positions and to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution,” he argued.

The Pope singled out a Syrian refugee family during a private visit to the Astalli refugee center in Rome so he could hear their story. He flooded his Twitter feed with messages like, “War never again! Never again war!” and “How much suffering, how much devastation, how much pain has the use of arms carried in its wake” and “With all my strength, I ask each party in the conflict not to close themselves in solely on their own interests. #prayforpeace.”

He declared a day of prayer and fasting for Syria and held a five-hour prayer service in St. Peter’s Square as the U.S. and France contemplated military strikes. “How many conflicts, how many wars have mocked our history?” he asked the tens of thousands of faithful gathered. “Even today we raise our hand against our brother. … We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves as if it were normal we continue to sow destruction, pain, death. Violence and war lead only to death.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) sent letters to all members of Congress urging them to vote against military intervention in Syria. The USCCB also wrote to President Obama to make clear that for the Pope and Middle Eastern Bishops “a military attack will be counterproductive, will exacerbate an already deadly situation, and will have unintended negative consequences.”

The Pope’s messaging this past week could not be more different. As the U.S. has considered its next steps in combating the ISIS threat, @Pontifex’s tweets have been about spiritual poverty and God’s love that does not cease. In his visit to Albania, he briefly rebuked (unnamed) religious militants who act in the name of God—“May no one use religion as a pretext for actions against human dignity,” he told diplomats at the presidential palace on Sunday—but that’s about it.

Why the change? Certainly the political landscape has shifted over the past year. The ISIS threat has risen to the global scene, and these latest airstrikes are targeting militant groups rather than Assad’s regime. Russia may now seem like less of an obvious partner for peace after its actions in Ukraine. Pope Francis himself has a panoply of issues on his agenda, from migration crises to Vatican financial reform to the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the family. Plus, there is the risk that the appearance of Vatican support for military intervention against ISIS could flame a “Christian v. Muslim” narrative that could further endanger religious minorities in the region.

The Pope is not usually a figure world leaders look to for foreign policy advice when considering military action—his role is more one of a moral symbol, and so his voice is relevant chiefly for its perceived influence in shaping public opinion. The Catholic Church traditionally holds to the theory of just war, historically accepting military intervention as a sometimes necessary step toward peace. But no one expects a symbol of peace to ever be an advocate for war — and so the Pope’s silence may be as close as the Holy See gets to giving an endorsement.

Francis did hint at his approval of the U.S. bombing campaign in Iraq last month, when it began targeting ISIS positions there. So long as the international community was involved, and not just a sole actor, he told a reporter on his return flight from South Korea, “I can say only it’s licit to stop an unjust aggressor.”

He also sent special envoy Cardinal Fernando Filoni to Iraq to visit displaced and threatened minorities—Christian, Yezidi, and other—in August. “The Church as Church is and will always be against war,” Filoni, who was the Vatican’s ambassador to Iraq under Sadaam Hussein, said upon returning. “But these poor people have the right to be defended. They have no weapons, they have been driven out from their homes in a cowardly way, they have not engaged the enemy.”

But silence about human rights more broadly however has its risks, especially in pivotal political moments like we are seeing this week. Veteran Vatican reporter John Allen Jr. put what’s at stake in the Pope’s diplomatic career best. “To date, the only concrete diplomatic success to which Francis can point is helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cling to power by opposing Western strikes [last year],” Allen wrote for the Boston Globe’s new Catholic site Crux. “Yet assuming that Assad reasserts control, the question is whether Francis will use the Church’s resources to promote greater respect for human rights and democracy. If not, his major political accomplishment could go down as propping up a thug.”

TIME National Security

Worse Than ISIS? A Primer on the Khorasan Group

Mushin al-Fadhli
US State Department Mushin al-Fadhli

Everything we know, and don't know, about the other extremist group targeted by U.S. airstrikes in Syria early Tuesday

The U.S. and a coalition of allies in the Middle East targeted a number of Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) strongholds in Syria with pre-dawn airstrikes on Tuesday — but in an unexpected detour, U.S. warplanes struck a cluster of sites west of Aleppo, an area outside of ISIS’s purview and under the command of a little known al-Qaeda cell known as the Khorasan Group.

U.S. officials had not acknowledged the Khorasan Group by name until as recently last week, when director of national intelligence James Clapper said the group “may pose as much of a danger” as ISIS, the New York Times reports. While information about the group’s members and goals remains scant, officials have made clear with recent comments, punctuated by Tuesday’s airstrikes, that the Khorasan Group now constitutes one of the chief concerns of the intelligence community. Here’s a primer on what’s known and unknown about the group so far:

What is the Khorasan group?
A cell of battle-hardened al-Qaeda fighters who have set up a franchise, of sorts, in the contested provinces of Syria. The group has tapped new recruits from the influx of foreign fighters infiltrating the region. Their goal, officials allege, is to capitalize on their range of nationalities to carry out terrorist attacks on a range of Western targets, including the U.S. While they share ISIS’s severe interpretation of Sunni Islam and disdain for differing sects within Islam, they have rejected the group’s battle tactics, fearing that brutal attacks against Muslims in Syria and Iraq would erode support for their goals of waging a wider war against western powers.

How big is it?
The exact number of fighters is unknown. Estimates range from a few dozen to upwards of 50 fighters, intelligence experts told ABC News, though their affiliations are loose and shifting within a larger network of al-Qaeda fighters known as the al-Nusra front. Under the protection of the al-Nusra front, the group has secured land and buildings in the areas surrounding Aleppo. Tuesday’s air strikes suggest that it has commandeered a range of compounds, including “training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communication building and command and control facilities,” according to U.S. Central Command.

Who’s in charge?
Muhsin al-Fadhli, 33, formerly a close confidante of Osama bin Laden. According to the State Department, he was one of the few members of al-Qaeda entrusted with advanced knowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He climbed the ranks fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan and raising funds for al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq. The State Department has placed a $7 million reward on information that would lead to his capture, and has connected him to attacks on a French oil tanker in 2002 and a string of bombings across Saudi Arabia.

Why haven’t we heard of it until now?
The organization keeps a low profile, in stark contrast to ISIS fighters who regularly release gruesome footage of beheadings and mass executions over social media. Rather than brandishing blades before the cameras, members of the Khorasan Group have reportedly taken a greater interest in developing attacks that would employ concealed weapons.

Could it really be more lethal than Islamic State?
To the West, perhaps. Islamic State has a far greater number of recruits under its command, upwards of 31,000 according to the latest CIA estimate, but its aspirations so far have been fixed on establishing and expanding a caliphate in the region, wresting chunks of territory from Iraq and Syria, and driving out or killing waves of ethnic and religious minorities. Khorasan, on the other hand, seems to have a more single-minded ambition of attacking the U.S. and other western nations, according to officials who said that Tuesday’s airstrikes were meant to disrupt an “imminent attack” on western targets.


TIME United Nations

Climate Summit Kicks Off With Promises of $200 Billion for Clean Energy

UN Climate Change Ban Ki Moon
Timothy A. Clary—AFP/Getty Images UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks during the Opening Session of the Climate Change Summit at the United Nations in New York City on Sept. 23, 2014.

More than 120 world leaders gathered at the United Nations Tuesday to call for an international agreement to cap greenhouse gas emissions.

The leaders used the one-day summit to announce plans by governments, investors and financial institutions to mobilize more than $200 billion to finance clean energy and support resilience among vulnerable nations.

Opening the session alongside Vice President Al Gore and a bearded Leonardo DiCaprio, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that time was running out for the world to agree on a legally-binding deal that would force nations to set emissions targets by 2020 in a bid to keep temperatures at 2 degrees Celsius.

The summit is seen as the beginning year-long negotiations that should culminate with a deal in Paris next year. But negotiations for the past seven years have been fraught with clashes between rich and poor nations, symbolized in part Tuesday by the absence of leaders from China and India.

“We need a clear vision, anchored in domestic and multinational actions, for keeping global temperature rise below 2 Degrees Celsius,” Ban told delegates. “The world needs to see what opportunities there are to cut greenhouse gas emissions and provide sustainable energy sources. By seeing what is possible, others can find inspiration and follow suit.”

Ban said he was especially heartened by the climate march that drew upwards of 300,000 on Sunday in New York and the promises of financial help. The $200 billion would be available at the end of 2015. It includes pledges by donor — several billion of dollars expected Tuesday — and developing countries to capitalize on the Green Climate Fund, which was set up 2010 to help facilitate climate funding from developed to developing nations.

“I am very impressed by the financing mobilized at the Summit by both the public and private sector. This will serve as a catalyst in finalizing a universal and meaningful agreement at Paris on climate change in 2015.” “The Summit has created a platform for new coalitions and has brought leaders from both public and private sectors across the globe to not only recognize climate risks, but to agree to work together.”

The financing reflects the growing clout of the private sector in the negotiations. Long sidelined over their perceived indifference the talks, the U.N. has sought them out and it appears to be paying off. Along with the financing, more than 100 CEOs are expected to get time later in the day with Ban to illustrate what they are doing on climate and some 30 are expected to announce plans to internalize the price of carbon in their operations and advocate for the setting a price on carbon emissions.

Of the $200 billion, about half comes from institutional investors who have committed to expediently decarbonize and to measure and disclose the carbon footprint of at least US$500 billion in assets under management. Another $30 billion comes from commercial banks providing climate finance by the end of 2025 while the insurance industry has agreed to double its green investments to $82 billion by the end of 2015.

Meanwhile, a group calling itself free Divest-Invest movement said it has now has over 800 global investors representing $50 billion in total assets to agreement to divest from their holdings in fossil fuels over the next five years. Those making the commitment include foundations, individuals, faith groups, health care organizations, cities and universities around the world.

“John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, moved America out of whale oil and into petroleum,” said Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

“We are quite convinced that if he were alive today, as an astute businessman looking out to the future, he would be moving out of fossil fuels and investing in clean, renewable energy.”

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME ebola

CDC: Cases of Ebola Could Double Every 20 Days

Members of a burial team wearing protective suits bury an Ebola victim in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Samuel Aranda—The New York Times/Redux Members of a burial team wearing protective suits bury an Ebola victim at King Tom Cemetery, which is bitterly resented by residents of the adjoining slum, called Kolleh Town, in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Sept. 21, 2014.

A new CDC report predicts the enormous cost of delayed response to Ebola

If Ebola conditions continue without a scaled-up effort, the CDC estimates that cases of Ebola in West Africa will double every 20 days — and in an absolute worst-case scenario without any intervention, numbers could reach 1.4 million by Jan. 20.

Using a new Ebola Response prediction tool, the CDC has published results that show that if current trends continue unimpeded, Liberia and Sierra Leone will have approximately 8,000 total Ebola cases, or 21,000 if the tool accounts for underreporting, by Sept. 20. Liberia will account for about 6,000 of those cases.

The numbers are frighteningly high, but it should be noted that it’s a prediction of a hypothetical situation in which absolutely no intervention were to happen. That won’t be the case if many countries and the UN keep their promises. The model also shows that a big response could turn the outbreak around. In another hypothetical situation, the outbreak could ease up and eventually end if 70% of people with Ebola are placed in medical care facilities, Ebola treatment units, or somewhere where transmission could be contained.

“The model shows that a surge now can break the back of the epidemic,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, in a press conference. “The importance of implementing effective programs rapidly cant be over-emphasized. The cautionary finding of the modeling is the enormous cost of delay.”

During the press conference, Dr. Frieden said the outbreak is very fluid and changing, but that he does not think West Africa will meet their worst case scenario predictions. “If you get enough people effectively isolated, the epidemic can be stopped…Even in dire scenarios, if we move fast enough we can turn it around. I do not think the most dire circumstances will come to pass,” he said.

The CDC report comes out on the same day the World Health Organization released their reports on the outbreaks at six months in all affected countries, and it appears that cases in Nigeria and Senegal have stabilized “for the moment.” Last week, President Obama announced a deployment of 3,000 U.S. military personnel and over $500 million in defense spending to go to West Africa, and the UN announced a new task force called the U.N. Mission for Ebola Emergency Response. The hope is that an exponentially increased response will prevent these possible scenarios.

TIME United Nations

Deadbeat Diplomats Owe NYC $16 Million in Unpaid Parking Fines

The price of diplomatic immunity

Diplomatic staff based in New York City have racked up $16 million in unpaid parking tickets, according to municipal data obtained by the Wall Street Journal.

Officials from 180 countries, or all but 15 countries on the planet, have accrued debt related to parking violations. Egypt leads the pack with a whopping $1.9 million tab and 17,499 summonses. Diplomats from Nigeria, Indonesia and Brazil have dues ranging from $600 to nearly $900,000. Much of the debt dates back to the early 2000s, before mayor Michael Bloomberg cracked down on parking violations and unpaid fines.

The Wall Street Journal includes a graphic breakdown of the 10 biggest violators as well as a range of evasive responses from the artful to the confused to the undiplomatic, proving that if there’s one thing that the world’s diplomats can agree upon at this week’s United Nations general assembly, it’s that the rules of the road don’t apply to them.


TIME Military

U.S. Pledges to Destroy All Landmines Outside of Korean Peninsula

Jeff Pachoud—AFP/Getty Images A sign reading ''Danger landmines, what is happening to those shoes'' is pictured in front of a pyramid of shoes during the annual demonstration by NGO Handicap International to denounce the use and sale of anti-personnel landmines, on Sept. 20, 2014 in Lyon, central France.

Officials cited "unique circumstances" in the Koreas that prevented acceding to a universal ban

The U.S. has pledged to destroy all existing stockpiles of anti-personnel landmines outside of the Korean peninsula, administration officials said on Monday, but stopped short of acceding to an international ban on the weaponry.

The decision to destroy existing stockpiles builds on a previous commitment in June to not manufacture, acquire or do anything to replenish existing stockpiles of landmines. While administration officials reinforced their commitment to the goals of the Ottawa Convention, a 15-year-old international agreement that forbids the use or stockpiling of landmines, the U.S. did not formally join the treaty.

“Even as we take these further steps, the unique circumstances on the Korean Peninsula and our commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea preclude us from changing our anti-personnel landmine policy there at this time, said National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden.

“We will continue our diligent efforts to pursue solutions that would be compliant with and ultimately allow us to accede to the Ottawa Convention while ensuring our ability to meet our alliance commitments to the Republic of Korea.”

More than 160 countries have joined the Ottawa Convention, but the U.S. has resisted pressure from several human rights organizations to sign the treaty, citing ongoing security concerns.

TIME United Nations

UN General Assembly Kicks Off in New York City

UN Climate Change Ban Ki Moon
Timothy A. Clary—AFP/Getty Images UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks during the Opening Session of the Climate Change Summit at the United Nations in New York City on Sept. 23, 2014.

The rise of Islamic State extremists in Syria and Iraq, the ongoing civil strife in Ukraine, and the deadly Ebola outbreak on the agenda for this week's summit

More than 140 heads of state and government gathered in New York City Tuesday for the 69th annual United Nations general assembly.

This year’s agenda is crowded with talks and speeches on new crises, including the rise of Islamic State extremists in Syria and Iraq, the ongoing civil strife in Ukraine, and the deadly Ebola outbreak, as well as old standards such as climate change and nuclear disarmament.

Topping the agenda is the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). The UN security council will convene a special session on Wednesday in the hopes of forging an international agreement to sever the flow of funds, arms and fighters into ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria. President Barack Obama will chair the security council session, the first time he has done so since 2009, the Guardian reports.

On Wednesday each head of state will have 15 minutes at the lectern to address the General Assembly. Notable newcomers include Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi—who has booked out Madison Square Garden to address the Indian diaspora on Sunday—and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Russian President Vladimir Putin will not attend this year’s meeting, neither will Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the second year running, but, surprisingly, North Korea will send its first high-level delegate in 15 years, foreign minister minister Ri Su-yong, according to South Korea’s Joongang Daily .

Thursday will include a summit on the Ebola outbreak in west Africa, which has claimed more than 2,700 lives according to the World Health Organization. President Obama will address the gathering world leaders in a bid to raise funds and secure more commitments of aid to the affected countries, ABC News reports.

And once again, the un-choreographed action behind the scenes, when representatives from rival states might rub shoulders or shake hands, will be closely watched by diplomats and press corps alike. Last year’s meeting was preceded by anticipation of a hand shake between Iranian and U.S. leaders, never fulfilled in deed.

TIME United Kingdom

U.K. Labour Party Convenes After Scotland Vote

The Labour Party Annual Party Conference
Facundo Arrizabalaga—EPA Labour's Leader, Ed Miliband listens to a speech during the opposition Labour Party Annual Conference in Manchester, England on Sept. 22, 2014.

The party is ahead in the polls before next year's election. So why does everyone look so gloomy?

This should be a time of excitement and anticipation for Britain’s opposition Labour Party. Delegates and politicians have gathered in Manchester for the party’s annual convention, its last big get-together ahead of the U.K. general election scheduled for May 2015. Since Ed Miliband became Labour leader four years ago — to the surprise of large swaths of Britain and his brother David, the former Foreign Secretary and bookmakers’ favorite for the role — his party has mostly maintained a lead over the David Cameron’s Conservatives. Britain’s Conserverative-Liberal Democrat coalition took office in 2010 and has introduced unpopular budget cuts, presiding over an affluent nation that has seen increasing numbers of cash-strapped citizens forced to use food banks. Labour should be looking forward to an easy victory next spring, and you’d expect the mood at its party convention in a city in northwest England that boomed during the industrial revolution and cradled Britain’s labor movement, to reflect that outlook.

Instead delegates to the Labour Party Conference, which opened on Sept. 21 and concludes with a guest speech from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tomorrow, seem muted and apprehensive. The conference is sparsely attended. In days gone by, business tycoons and celebrities scenting a party about to gain power reliably swelled the numbers at such gatherings. This, by contrast, is a low key event. So why the long faces?

There are several reasons: Ed Miliband, a boyish 44-year-old, handsome enough but easily caught by photographers in cartoon-like expressions of befuddlement, has yet to convince Labour supporters or the wider public that he’s Prime Ministerial material. Pollster Ipsos-MORI recently revealed that only 30% of Britons consider him a capable leader compared to 46% who find him out of touch with ordinary people. His keynote address to the conference today marks a chance to change — or confirm — such views.

It doesn’t help that Labour’s poll lead over the Conservatives is modest: only 5 points according to the latest YouGov survey. Ahead of his stunning first election win in 1997, Tony Blair consistently polled leads in the double digits. Delegates glumly staring into their pints of beer in the bars of the Manchester Central Convention Complex see a murky prospect at the bottom of the glass: a possible coalition with the Liberal Democrats, tarnished in Labour minds by their current service in coalition with the hated Conservatives.

Yet the Lib Dems’ own electoral runes look so gloomy — they polled only 7% in the same YouGov survey — that this scenario too must be in question. All the mainstream parties have lost ground among English voters to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), red in tooth and claw on issues such as the European Union (UKIP advocates Britain’s E.U. withdrawal) and immigration (UKIP doesn’t like it one bit). YouGov shows UKIP doing far better than the Lib Dems, with the right-leaning party polling at 16%.

And another populist party has left Labour with a yet bigger headache. The Scottish National Party (SNP) may not have steered Scotland to independence in the Sept. 18 referendum, but it succeeded in convincing 45% of Scottish voters to disregard the Better Together campaign and opt for a split. Better Together was, in theory, a cross-party initiative combining Conservatives and Lib Dems as well as Labour in collegiate efforts to keep Scotland in the U.K. In practice, the campaign was run by the Labour Party, the only one of the three mainstream parties to have a large support base in Scotland — and 41 members of Parliament with Scottish seats.

The lackluster Better Together campaign has raised questions about whether Labour has lost its connection to the Scottish electorate and whether it will, as a result, lose those seats. Speaking at a conference fringe meeting in Manchester last night, Douglas Alexander, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary and head of Labour’s general election strategy, gave his perspective as a key member of the Better Together team and as a Scot. He said the SNP and UKIP were both benefiting from the same tailwinds — the British electorate’s lack of faith in mainstream parties to deliver. He also saw parallels with the rise of the Tea Party. “Westminster is assuming the same level of toxicity in the minds of British voters as Washington has in the minds of U.S. voters,” he said.

Britons’ trust in the mainstream parties has not been boosted by an unseemly scramble in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum vote to reinterpret promises made to Scotland to retain its support for the union. Labour had joined the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to promise further devolution of powers to the Scottish parliament and also the preservation of a controversial formula for allocating U.K. public spending that sees Scots do better per capita than their English counterparts. The morning after the referendum, Prime Minister Cameron raised the idea that these concessions to Scotland should be matched by greater local powers for the English, including “English Votes for English Laws” (the unfortunate acronym is EVEL), potentially barring MPs representing constituencies outside England from voting on matters affecting only English voters. It sounds fair enough but is constitutionally complex — and would probably deprive Labour, with its 41 Scotland-based MPs, of a working majority on key issues such as health and education.

In rejecting Cameron’s proposed breakneck schedule for EVEL, Miliband may well have put national interests ahead of party considerations. Rushed constitutional change is seldom a good idea. To voters, already disinclined to trust politicians, his response may well look like naked self-interest. He may be the most likely winner of the U.K.’s 2015 elections but Miliband, it seems, just can’t win and that’s why the Labour Party conference is such an odd, damp, dreary affair.

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