Labour Energy Forum organised a public meeting on Labour and the Green New Deal last week. Hundreds of people signed up to attend – apologies if you couldn’t attend! We had five great speakers (three of them women of colour), and seven respondents – from Labour’s Shadow Cabinet, trade unions, climate movements and think tanks. Rebecca Long-Bailey’s speech was pre-covered in the Guardian.
Here’s a write up of what happened.
The ‘Green New Deal’ is quickly becoming the powerful rallying cry for an emergent movement embedding climate demands within a far-reaching programme for economic and social justice. The GND has successfully galvanised broad public support largely due to its insistence that bold measures for confronting the climate crisis must be part of a broader programme for redressing inequality through large-scale public investment in green infrastructure and a green jobs revolution.
Labour’s Green Transformation: Lessons and Prospects
There is a real appetite for change in British politics, and the Labour Party has responded by proposing ambitious and far-reaching alternatives. The 2017 “For the Many Not the Few” manifesto laid out a series of far-reaching policies promising to shake up the British economy, ranging from re-nationalisation of rail, water and energy to public investment in infrastructure and improving employment conditions. The enthusiasm generated by the manifesto demonstrates the capacity of transformative policies based on clear and simple principles to garner mass support. But climate policy still needed to catch up with these developments.
The launch of the Party’s Green Transformation: Labour’s Environment Policy at the 2018 conference represented a pivotal shift in Labour’s thinking on the scope of climate action. The basic insight was to recognise that traditional faith in the market, individuals and voluntary collaboration must be drastically revised if we are to confront the full scale of the impending climate catastrophe. The manifesto replaces usual faith in ‘market mechanisms’ with the principle of energy democracy, or what it calls the ‘democratic public ownership’ of water, energy and transport. Crucially, it proposes that energy and transport are to be considered public goods, not sources of private profits. Based on this understanding, the manifesto puts forward climate measures centred on a massive, job-creating public investment programme covering a range of issues from energy, water and housing to farming, fisheries and biodiversity.
The manifesto is an impressive start for Labour’s new climate politics. The next step is to develop this emergent climate movement through debating, fleshing out and mobilising ideas. The ‘Building a Green New Deal For the Many Event’ was intended as an initial dialogue on what such a process might look like. This write up draws on some of the key lessons of the event.
1. Climate change is about class
As Faiza Shaheen made clear in her presentation, climate change is a class problem. It is the rich few that bear responsibility for warming the earth— in the particular fossil fuel companies profiting from appropriating resources and destroying the planet. When the climate crisis hits, it is also the few who will ensure they are provided for, while the many stand to bear the costs of fires, droughts and floods.
Understanding the class dimensions of the crisis also means recognising global inequalities and Britain’s historical role in causing climate change. In her presentation, Sakina Sheikh emphasised the need to frame the issue as one of climate justice. This means talking not only about social justice, but also about global justice, about the history of how we got here, how countries of the Global North have reaped the benefits of resource extraction, while countries of the Global South are forced to bear the costs. Addressing climate change means acknowledging that the UK bears disproportionate responsibility for fossil fuels, and working alongside communities in the Global South in order to build decent, sustainable livelihoods in solidarity with people across the globe.
Class also provides the basic framework through which the climate crisis must be tackled. As Rebecca Long-Bailey pointed out, Britain is already one the most unequal and regionally divided countries in Europe. Poorly implemented, economic transitions threaten to further impoverish the poorest parts of the country that are already suffering the worst effects of de-industrialisation and austerity. If climate policy does not fundamentally address these problems it not only risks accentuating them, but will also never receive mass support from Britain’s working people.
2. A transition to a zero carbon economy must be part of a broader programme for redistributing wealth and power
Climate solutions must explicitly confront deeper social and economic problems in UK society.The key insight of the GND is that for climate action to be effective, it must also be part of what Tony Benn called ‘a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families’. This means confronting problems of wage stagnation, insecure housing, fuel poverty and public transport that have resulted from years of austerity.
The GND offers a transformative vision for the climate, but this also means rethinking the economy and the role of the state in it. For example, it is already well known that taxation is central to climate thinking. But all too often, climate taxes targeting only ‘carbon’ threaten to place yet another burden on those who can least afford it. Taxation measures targeting emissions alone not only overlook fundamental inequalities in wealth and power, but they may even reinforce them. The Tory “we are all in this together” approach simply will not do. Climate policy must be based on redistributive taxes that target the few and benefit the many. Financing a Green Transformation must be an inroad for transforming the economy.
The appeal of the GND is that it places issues of socio-economic justice, inequality and job creation at the very centre of climate thinking. A comprehensive GND will be built by a ‘carbon army’ of workers with decent, sustainable and unionised jobs. It means a green energy infrastructure project delivering cheaper or free renewable energy. A public transport system providing clean, efficient and affordable transport. A social housing program bringing affordable, energy-efficient and sustainable homes to millions of people. The significance of these programmes is that they show how radical climate action can bring major and immediate improvements to people’s lives whilst offering a vision of a secure and sustainable future.
3. The climate movement must be a mass political movement
Projects of this scale and scope can only come into force under immense political pressure from below. Growing awareness around the need for transformative climate action has meant proposals for a New Green Deal-type reform program have been circulating for around a decade. But they have so far lacked the political energy to get off the ground. The GND involves an imaginative rethink of what is economically viable, but such changes can only come to the fore with the muscle of an energised and broad-based political force.
Recent events in the US offer a glimpse of what such a project might look like. In November 2018, the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats organised a sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office to demand climate action. When Alexandria Ocasio Cortez threw her support behind the action, the Green New Deal was suddenly propelled to the centre of mainstream public dialogue. These actions are only the beginning of what needs to be a much more generalised, sustained and organised force for far-reaching and long-term action.
In the UK, the seeds of such a force can be found in the gigantic upswell in participation and grassroots actions of climate movements. Powered by active, creative and youth-led movements like People and Planet, Divest, Extinction Rebellion and most recently the School Strikes, climate movements have brought thousands of protestors onto the streets, drawing public attention to successive failures of our governments to address the impending crisis. These movements have generated impressive grassroots mobilisation and organisation around climate issues. They have raised awareness of the structural causes of the climate crisis— clearly placing the blame for climate catastrophe on capitalist globalisation, driven by corporate profits and backed by the power of finance. They have also made important inroads in connecting with communities in the Global South on the ‘frontlines’ of the environmental disaster.
While these actions are important, there is still a need to broaden and consolidate the UK’s environmental movements. For climate politics to really cut through, it needs to be a generalised movement— of students, teachers and professionals, but also the workers in the industries themselves and communities on the frontlines. Of course, a climate program must address generational and racial injustices, but it also needs to be a mass movement, cutting through racial, generational and geographical divisions that would obstruct generalised support.
As Unite’s Sian Errington pointed out, a new climate politics must be rooted in workplaces and communities. It must take as its starting point the need to bring direct, immediate improvements to people’s lives, while also offering a vision of a sustainable and secure future. This means uniting across various sectors of workers and communities, as well as thinking how to wield class power for climate action.
The movement that has emerged around the Labour party in recent years could provide the basic infrastructure for a broad coalition of this sort. The massive energy galvanised by Corbyn’s leadership and the 2017 election show the potential for broad sectors of community and labour movements to mobilise and unite around a clear, bold and far-reaching vision. They demonstrate the popularity of a comprehensive plan able to seriously address social and economic challenges the country is facing— from inequality, housing and infrastructure to increasing labour market precariousness. A properly resourced and carefully planned GND proposal has the potential to consolidate and strengthen this emergent coalition.
The next stage is to flesh out, build and consolidate the Green New Deal through public debates, joint actions and building coalitions. The British left already counts with many of the tools, strategies and institutions necessary for democratic, deliberative and mobilising forces to develop. Given the urgent and systemic nature of the challenge, it is imperative that these processes are widespread, but also that they prepare for the long haul. Laying the groundwork for a GND must simultaneously mean building the basis of a new politics of mass participation, deliberation, education and mobilisation for the massive political-economic transformation Britain so urgently needs.