A Step Back? Labour and Democratic Public Ownership of Wind Power

By Adam Peggs

Last week, Labour unveiled one of its first substantive policy proposals from the new leadership in its report Labour’s Green Economic Recovery from Anneliese Dodds and Ed Miliband. The report calls for the government to bring forward capital investment to be spent on creating 400,000 green jobs, advocates for the creation of a National Investment Bank, for a National Retraining Strategy and for updating the Treasury Green Book.

Though the report is a response to the party’s environmental consultation, it did not take on board the views of the nearly 70% of submissions calling for public ownership and rapid decarbonisation.

It is, however, worth noting that the report is intended as a first step, rather than to serve as the bulk of Labour’s environmental programme. Responses to the report have praised certain aspects of the document but have also largely called for the party to be bolder and more ambitious, with some likening it to a retreat.

A crucial detail in the report is the change in tone on the subject of wind power. The document appears to distance the party from demands for democratic public ownership of new offshore projects. Instead, it calls for local private firms to take priority and for ‘community’ involvement in onshore wind –  a vague formulation. It is possible that the new leadership could offer ‘community ownership’ schemes, as exist in Scotland, as its solution in this area. It could even simply imply that local residents should have some voice in private, shareholder-owned companies as the direction to go. If that were the case it would be some way from alternative models of ownership.

Earlier in the year, all of the Leadership and Deputy leadership candidates backed a pledge from We Own It which included public ownership of offshore wind and local public ownership of onshore wind. That should make it clear enough that there is a real democratic mandate for the retention of this policy.

People’s Power Plan

In 2017, the Labour Energy Forum put forward proposals making the case for greater public ownership of offshore wind. By September 2019, similar proposals had been developed by Rebecca Long-Bailey in her then role as Shadow Business Secretary as The People’s Power Plan.

As part of its proposed Green Industrial Revolution, the plan proposed the creation of 37 additional offshore windfarms which would create an estimated 67,000 new jobs paid for by £83bn of public investment. The public sector would have a 51% stake in the new wind farms, which the party compared to practices in various European countries. This would stand in contrast to the status quo, where only one single offshore turbine is publicly owned (it is owned by a Catapult research centre).

The policy follows on from practices in Sweden, Denmark and Belgium. This stake would be held by Labour’s proposed publicly owned Regional Energy Agencies (REAs). 80% of any profits generated would go towards subsidising the party’s decarbonisation plans, with another 20% being invested in physical infrastructure in ‘held back’ coastal communities. Explaining the plans at the time, Long-Bailey argued, “the UK has the opportunity to avoid replicating Britain’s experience with North Sea Oil and instead to learn from countries such as Norway and Sweden by owning what is already ours.”

Taking Public Ownership Forward

This was an impressive step forward for the Party – though it was clear from the beginning that the proposal could go further. As the University of Greenwich’s David Hall writes, “Moving to public ownership therefore makes it easier to develop renewable energy systems, rather than using public money to offer financial ‘incentives’ for private companies.” But if public offshore wind farms are an example of “owning what is already ours”, then this raises the question of whether partial public ownership should be the ambition. Why not full democratic control instead?

Though the plans represented a vital policy, cutting out the complication of involving private investors would have been of more benefit for building a democratic economy. And it would also have generated bigger returns for the public. Nor would this necessarily be unprecedented, as the United Kingdom has a long history of fully publicly owned energy companies at all levels of the process. This includes British Gas and the British National Oil Corporation (which owed its creation to Tony Benn). This could restore that precedent but under a model of democratic ownership and as part of a genuinely sustainable economy.

This same approach should apply not just to offshore wind but to new onshore wind and solar installations. This would form a democratically-run, integrated energy system in which energy is generated and provided in the public interest. While this would entail greater levels of public investment, it would be well worth it.

It is clear there is a strong appetite for this agenda in the Party. That all of the Leadership and Deputy Leadership candidates backed these pledges this spring is indicative of this appetite among the membership. It is evidenced by the two Green New Deal motions which overwhelmingly passed Labour conference last year, both of which demanded public ownership of energy. And it is evidenced by polling of members, which indicated 9 in 10 members favoured public ownership earlier in the year. While the composition of the membership has changed over the last six months, the outcome of the NEC elections underlines that this change has been less drastic than many expected.

Nonetheless, this year the membership has had few chances to meaningfully articulate itself – and there are some signs that the Party appears to be planning to carry on this way. The overwhelming backing for democratic public ownership in Labour for a Green New Deal’s motion demonstrates the viability of pursuing this issue at future party conferences. But while this would strengthen the mandate for policies like publicly owned offshore wind farms, it also makes clear that these policies will not automatically be reflected. There is no shortage of examples in history of high-profile conference motions simply being ignored.

Party conference and the National Policy Forum are not the only forums in which the membership can make its voice heard. While the left still lacks a majority on the NEC, there could be some opportunities here. Working to enlarge the left caucus, while demanding NEC members and affiliated unions uphold the policies passed at conference, may not be an easy route, but could yield some results. Grassroots campaigning inside and outside of the Party, mobilising support and articulating the benefits of publicly controlled energy, might also be useful. However, without access to the levers of power, many activists may justifiably fear that this strategy is unlikely to bear fruit in the short-term.

A just transition needs to be more than a slogan. Nor can it simply be understood as the need to support those who lose their jobs in the fossil-fuel intensive industries: it must refer to a new socio-economic settlement. When it comes to this new settlement, its “ambition needs to match the scale of the problem”. Democratic public ownership is a particularly significant part of this agenda, as the Fire Brigades Union, Scottish Green Party and Labour for a Green New Deal have all argued. Without it a Green New Deal may decarbonise the economy but will fail to address the extraction and lack of accountability which currently characterises our energy system.

Adam Peggs is a writer and activist based in Hackney, London. 

Image: Wind turbines. Author: Tom Corser. http://www.tomcorser.com. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Licence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode

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