Why are the Labour Party turning their back on the Green Industrial Revolution?

We need a Green New Deal for people and the planet now more urgently than ever, and we must fight for it.

This month saw the release of Labour’s first comprehensive policy paper under Keir Starmer, a roadmap for a green Covid recovery that Ed Miliband touted as “the most ambitious climate recovery plan in the world.” 

To the casual observer reading Labour’s ‘Green Economic Recovery’ report, seems to be much to commend. Following a summer of open consultation about the shape of Labour’s ‘Green Recovery’, the report outlines a number of key policies and commitments that would help decarbonise the UK and gently nudge the economy towards being more fair, prosperous and sustainable.

Promising 400,000 green jobs, including a programme of “emergency training” to re-equip workers for a greener economy, and a National Investment Bank, the report makes some sensible suggestions that many Labour members would welcome. Trying to imagine what a post-Covid society will look like is vitally important in this historic moment, and when faced with a terrifying intersection of economic, public health and climate crises, one would hope that the opposition party in the country that suffered the worst recession and highest Covid death toll in Europe would be able to offer a radically transformative alternative.

Sadly Labour’s ‘Green Recovery’ report actually represents a quivering withdrawal from Labour’s bold 2019 manifesto pledge to deliver a Green Industrial Revolution. With pledges to rebuild post-industrial Britain through massive government investment in renewables and deliver over one million green jobs, Universal Basic Services and a rapid decarbonisation, Labour’s economic vision under Corbyn’s leadership offered genuinely transformative policies to the electorate, who ultimately rejected them.

The new ‘Green Recovery’ plan bafflingly drops a number of key policies that are still technically official Labour policy.

They were adopted at Conference last year, and were overwhelmingly backed by members during the consultation period this summer. Labour for a Green New Deal, a grassroots volunteer-led organisation, have called on the party time and time again to keep its promises to members and keep up the fight for a socialist solution to the interlinked climate, economic and public health crises we face.

As part of the much-vaunted consensus building project embarked on by Labour’s New Leadership™, these policies which were supported by more than two thirds of submissions to the consultation were roundly rejected, and instead of a radical vision for a transformed economy and society, Labour quietly abandoned its pledge to decarbonise by 2030.

The ‘Green Recovery’ report might well prove to be just a “first step”, as Matthew Pennycook, Shadow Minister for Climate Change, has suggested, but it would seem rather bizarre for a “first step” towards decarbonisation to follow a momentous leap like the 2019 ‘Green Industrial Revolution’. It’s like Cristiano Ronaldo taking a step towards winning the Champions League by signing for Leyton Orient.

A side-by-side comparison of commitments from the 2019 manifesto and the ‘Green Recovery’ report makes for incredibly bleak and disheartening reading.

An election-winning manifesto could be written almost entirely out of policies that have been dropped: Public ownership of railways and buses, a National Care Service, zero emissions city centres, a Clean Air Act, progressive taxation, Green Energy and Zero Carbon funds for local government and a commitment to a low-carbon economy. It is quite frankly baffling that Labour’s leadership would willingly work themselves into an electoral cul-de-sac that will inevitably play to the advantage of the Conservatives and let down voters who need a Labour government most when they are defeated.

During the election post-mortem which saw the sweeping victory of Sir Keir Rodney Starmer QC in the Labour leadership election, all three candidates for the vacant position offered support for a ‘Green New Deal’, including Starmer himself who pledged to “put the Green New Deal at the heart of everything we do”. It is now clear that Starmer’s 10 pledges were made in bad faith.

The new Leader of the Opposition is utterly allergic to any policy position that would threaten the truce he seems to have to have brokered with the liberal commentariat whose approval he values above that of his own membership (knowing that he is virtually impregnable in his position for years to come, barring a snap electoral disaster). Labour’s abandonment of its 2019 manifesto serves as evidence of a brazen renunciation of party democracy.

From the election of right-winger David Evans as General Secretary, to the postponement of Labour’s Conference due to COVID-19 (no virtual democracy was permitted, perhaps owing to the lack of nationalised broadband), there is an increasing feeling of disenfranchisement and disillusionment amongst Labour members that might threaten to turn into a mass exodus. Even Evans’ appointment itself is technically still subject to Conference approval, but those holding power in the party seem uninterested in such matters.

When compared to meal-mouthed Conservative environmental pledges, such as Boris Johnson’s gleeful proclamation that the UK can become the “Saudi Arabia of wind power”, or his limp announcement of 10 new national parks (another culled policy from Labour’s plan), Labour’s proposals look relatively robust. The government earlier this year had only invested £4bn per year out of the £33bn required to meet its net-zero targets, a miniscule amount when compared with Germany’s £36bn per year investment.

There is little surprise in the Tories being reluctant to combat climate change beyond green capitalism and a woeful 10 point-plan with only £4 billion of new investment.

But given the recent invention of Keynesian economics by Rishi Sunak, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the Conservatives would perform a characteristically screeching U-turn on green investment and promise to spend on a similar scale to Labour. This looks to be the case, and now the government has pledged to invest £4bn in creating 250,000 green jobs, still short of Labour’s pledge, but not insignificant. Many within the Labour movement are outraged that the party leadership have ceded ideological ground to the Tories, who now have the temerity to call their programme a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’.

One key difference between the two plans that is probably worth repeating is that the Tories are actually in power, and will likely remain so with a huge majority until 2024, leaving them free to slash away at the foreign aid budget and ramp up defence spending by £16 billion. In this context, Labour has not seemed so ideologically bereft, or incapable of challenging the Tories for decades. Starmer and his allies seem happy to spend the next few years pummeling the left into submission or out of the party entirely, from Jeremy Corbyn himself through to those who have the temerity to discuss the former leader’s suspension.

The Labour leadership’s timid concession to centre-right economic orthodoxy is nothing particularly surprising, given that it has been the default position of the Parliamentary Labour Party for much of its post-war history, even during the Corbyn project. 

Former human rights lawyer Starmer is happy to whip his MPs to abstain on basic protections for British citizens, such as the right to not be murdered by an undercover member of the Food Standards Agency. Many Labour MPs broadly share the market-worshipping, laissez-faire predilections of their supposed opponents on the opposite benches and seem utterly paralysed by fear when radical ideas are floated by the membership.

An increasingly hard to ignore fault-line is emerging between the young and old within Labour, particularly apparent by the sweeping victory of explicitly socialist candidates in Young Labour elections who are unafraid of calling out the timid socio-economic and climate policies of the new leadership (and to a lesser extent NEC elections which were slightly less clear-cut). A fraught, hostile Labour party that is unwelcoming towards the left is going to be an increasingly toxic prospect for the generation of young voters who will reach maturity by the time of the next election, upon whom Labour’s prospects of victory largely rest.

Interestingly, Labour decided to wait until the result of the American election to announce its ‘Green Recovery’ plan.

Looking across the Atlantic, one useful lesson from Biden’s victory was the overwhelming victory of House Democratic candidates who co-sponsored the Green New Deal. All but one candidate out of the 93 co-sponsors won re-election by running on a policy platform that demanded radical economic and social transformation, rather than the limp appeals to liberal bluster against Trumpian vulgarity and nascent “back to brunch” sentiment deployed by many establishment Democratic candidates who suffered at the ballot box.

Observing these results, it’s clear that Labour took absolutely no notice and decided to plough on with their project of technocratic managerialism, finger-wagging against the Tories and suspensions for ‘wrecker’ socialists. This could have been the moment for Labour to extend a hand to socialists and progressives in the USA and demonstrate a shared, cohesive vision for a decarbonised society, with green jobs for all and a plan to free up atmospheric space for developing countries. Labour looks set to squander this excellent opportunity for international solidarity at a moment when the UK is likely to plunge out of the EU without a deal.

There are hopes that COP26 (postponed until next year) will lead to a radical new internationalist consensus on climate change, resulting in real action (unlike the Paris agreement), but it is difficult to envision G20 countries making a meaningful contribution to tackling climate disaster. Countries in the Global South who contribute a miniscule carbon footprint are those most likely to suffer the ravages of climate destruction, through natural disaster, drought and resource conflict, so the UK must do more to free up climate space for countries that are decarbonising. For instance, electricity in Kenya is 93% powered by renewables. Wealthier nations must contribute to their just transition by cancelling debt in the developing world and opening their borders to refugees.

Ultimately, most of the general public are utterly disillusioned with the mainstream political parties in the UK. People are suffering on a level that would have previously been unthinkable even after a decade of ruinous Tory austerity, and with the country veering in and out of lockdown, hundreds of thousands more job losses are expected in coming months. Even figures as profoundly pro-establishment as Gordon Brown have called for an urgent and immediate anti-poverty program to stave off the threat of ”rebellion” in a deeply divided Britain.

With the breakup of the Union looking more likely than ever, it would take an incredibly transformative, visionary political program of investment to hold the country together.

Since neither the Conservatives or Labour seem capable of offering this at one of the most dire periods in British history, then the UK seems destined for dissolution. The most terrifying prospect of all though is of course the impending climate disaster, and with Labour abandoning its policy of decarbonisation by 2030, the perpetual Tory government is free to dither and crawl towards a net-zero by 2050 target.

Battered and bruised by the events of 2020, we lurch from one disaster to the next, failing to see that the solution to our interlinked economic, social and climate crises has been in front of us for some time now: a Green New Deal for people and the planet.

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