Labour backtracks on its green agenda

By Angus Satow

Last week Labour unveiled its first in-depth policy paper under Keir Starmer’s leadership, a plan for a ‘green recovery’ from the coronavirus crisis. In an interview around the report, Shadow BEIS Secretary Ed Miliband stole a march on Boris Johnson – soon announcing his own plans for a ‘green industrial revolution’ – to claim the green mantle (he previously promised “the most ambitious climate recovery plan in the world”). A continuity with Labour’s transformative climate programme of 2019 was also signalled.

Unfortunately, this report fails on all counts – backtracking on key policy commitments and ignoring party democracy, all while failing to present any coherent vision to rival Johnson’s.  

Labour’s Green New Deal

As youth strikes and Extinction Rebellion drove climate up the agenda last year, Labour for a Green New Deal (LGND ) formed a socialist climate politics from the Labour grassroots. At Conference 2019, members and trade unions passed, near-unanimously, a Green New Deal motion to decarbonise Britain’s economy by 2030 (significantly faster than the Tory-agreed target) while creating good jobs and tackling inequality. 

In the Party’s 2019 manifesto, this was translated into a groundbreaking Green Industrial Revolution, envisioning a green, collectively-owned future, with a baseline 2030 decarbonisation target. Key policies included Warm Homes for All, insulating every home in the country by 2030, cutting emissions by 10%, families’ energy bills by £416 a year and fuel poverty; a publicly-owned energy system centred around decarbonisation by the 2030s while providing free energy for working-class households; a million green jobs and 320,000 climate apprenticeships, with a just transition fund for workers in affected industries and investment in post-industrial areas of the country ravaged by neoliberalism.

All this was to be funded through a £250bn green transformation fund, as well as a windfall tax on oil and gas companies, so polluters would bear the cost of addressing this crisis, not workers or ordinary people.

This Green Industrial Revolution provided rapid decarbonisation, tangible benefits to the lives of millions of working people, and a potential electoral coalition ranging from climate-conscious young voters in cities to so-called Red Wall areas revived by green industry. Sadly, in a Brexit-dominated election, no coherent narrative was developed and climate faded to the background, despite much popular support for climate action and Labour’s policies.

The democratic, ecological and economic mandate for these policies remains strong, however, with Keir Starmer making the Green New Deal one of his flagship leadership promises. Ed Miliband then rightly pledged this summer that he was “not resiling one iota from the manifesto”. The pandemic has since exposed the inequality and precarity structuring our economy, renewing the case for a Green New Deal, not least to tackle the unemployment crisis.

Labour members recognise this, with more than 70% of submissions to the party’s green recovery consultation backing LGND’s proposals, building on last year’s conference motion and manifesto.

Heading Backwards

Sadly, this report is a big step back in ambition. There are a few positives – a strong case for investment in green jobs in response to the unemployment crisis and signals of an interventionist green industrial strategy (even if these are increasingly the political mainstream). But the best that can be hoped is that it’s just a ‘first step’ – with more policy to come.

Incredibly, the report advocates no new spending whatsoever, instead calling for the Government to bring forward £30bn of the capital investment it has already promised. That’s a mere third of what the TUC has advocated (the number of green jobs proposed is less than half of the TUC’s proposals). Gone, too, is any mention of the 2030 decarbonisation target: the report is often centred around the status quo aim of net-zero emissions by 2050 (now openly embraced by Labour). This isn’t climate leadership – it’s a recipe for climate catastrophe.

The report does make some positive policy proposals around home insulation, a key target to create green jobs and bring down emissions. But the target is just seven million homes by 2030, down from 27 million. Starmer’s Labour shies away from the massive state intervention and investment required to tackle our climate, health and economic crises, making no mention whatsoever of any of the public ownership commitments (of energy, water, broadband and more) at the heart of Labour’s Green New Deal. Transport barely merits a mention.

On energy, the report prefers to point out holes in the Tories’ plans, rather than suggest alternatives. There is no mention of Labour’s 2019 policy for 70,000 jobs in new publicly-owned wind farms, with profits reinvested into coastal communities. The same goes for plans to provide free energy for 1.75m working-class households by putting solar panels on their roofs. Bright sparks on retraining programmes are welcome, but are less ambitious than 2019. 

Crucially, this is a ‘Green New Deal’ shorn of class conflict, with no plans to rapidly wind down fossil fuels (and mass aviation) while empowering workers in a just transition. But despite welcome noises from Ed Miliband, there is no mention of public equity stakes of struggling airlines, or a plan to phase out North Sea oil. More worryingly still, its unqualified embrace of hydrogen and carbon capture and storage (CCS) risks paving the way for polluters intent on maintaining an ecocidal status quo.

The report is best encapsulated by its stance on climate finance – there is a much-trumpeted call for mandatory climate risk disclosures for listed companies. But John McDonnell’s threat to delist the companies failing this test is gone, presumably for fear of spooking the City. Labour is hoping against reason that the market, with a small nudge from the state, can solve this crisis. 

Taking stock

Starved of any policy commitments whatsoever, it would be a grave mistake for the Left to welcome these crumbs from the table. For one, it is a blatant and shameful breach of party democracy. Neither conference motion nor manifesto is mentioned, and the pro-LGND consultation submissions ignored. CLP reps on the environmental NPF commission didn’t even see the document before its release. Clearly, the NPF isn’t fit for purpose.

We are instead witnessing an abandonment of a transformative policy agenda in favour of a managerialist incrementalism and critique of the Tories on ‘delivery’ (embodied by the abandonment of the National Care Service amidst a pandemic). With a Shadow Treasury stuck in 2014, tacking to the right of the Tories on tax-and-spend, there seems little prospect of the promised 1945-style realignment to a new social settlement so needed for people and planet. 

This is a path leading inexorably to defeat. There is little to distinguish it from Johnson’s Tories, who suit this brand of techno-utopian, green capitalist patriotism far better than Anneliese Dodds. Simultaneously, Labour is giving up its hard-earned mantle as the party of climate, risking further alienation of new urban bases. There may be fanfare from NGOs and think-tanks – but precious little in the way of popular support. For party, planet and people – now is not the time for reverse gear.  

Angus Satow is co-founder of Labour for a Green New Deal.


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