Labour’s new climate working group needs to result in public ownership policy

By Lauren Townsend

Last week Labour announced a new ‘just transition’ climate working group, which will see the party work with other groups to develop its climate policy. Announcing the group, shadow minister Matthew Pennycook said that “social justice must be at the centre of our response to the climate and environment emergency”. The group is set to consider “practical, feasible, affordable and fair policy responses”, with a focus on what transition means for individual sectors. 

None of which, of course, there is anything wrong with. Very few people in the Labour Party are going to argue, for instance, that Labour’s  – or anyone else’s, for that matter – approach to climate politics should not involve social justice, or that responses to the climate crisis should not be practical or feasible. 

The problem is that what results from this working group in terms of Labour policy is unlikely to go beyond these markers which have been set out at its founding, markers which are ill-defined and are too cautious where they are defined. In terms of genuine policy direction beyond loose, near-universal aspirations such as ‘fair’ policies, there is very little apart from a reference to social justice – a term which can mean just about anything, and one which is often used to signal radical change without the structural analysis or policy offer needed to deliver it. 

And there is little to suggest that this won’t be the case this time – that Labour is set to offer the radical, structure-changing policies needed to address the climate emergency at the scale and urgency needed. Beyond the fact that none of the blurb offered with the launch of this group relates in any way to this, Labour under Starmer has time and time again offered climate policy which is absolutely rooted in attempts to tinker with the system we have rather than overhaul it. 

A key part of the structural change needed to address climate change, and a key part of what we need to see coming out of this group, is public ownership. Climate change is an issue of class oppression, and so to in any way resolve it our key resources must, very likely, lie in the hands of all of us. Only then will they be used for, not against, the common good. 

Of course, there are other policy fronts on which the battle against climate change must be won – not least the phenomenal amount of extra public investment needed to guarantee that the infrastructure we need is in place, and that the transition to a new society happens in a way which does not punish working class people. But, whilst Starmer has still not even gone as far as Corbyn here, he has had least made some commitments.  

Contrast this with public ownership. Starmer’s Labour has not only failed to commit to public ownership, it has actively rowed back on what little democratic control of resources we have in this country, with, for example, Labour opposing a rise in corporation tax. It is vital we see progress here. 

Of course, there is a theoretical chance of this working group making a significant contribution to Labour policy independent of Starmer administration control – so yes, perhaps all this talk of the leadership’s history and positioning is a waste of time. But, in actuality, it is unrealistic to expect this group to ever really be allowed to influence Labour policy beyond the leader’s office’s say-so: there is no indication that the group’s recommendations will have any firm effect, beyond that which the leader’s office gives them.

We want to see this group succeed, and it is a positive that it has been set up. But unless it puts the blame for the climate crisis where it lies – a global economic system which allows billionaires to dirty our planet and line their pockets at the expense of us all – and Labour uses its work to develop the solutions concomitant with this analysis, then this project will fall short. 

Lauren Townsend is a Labour for a Green New Deal spokesperson and Labour councillor in Milton Keynes.

Image: Fighting for a future: Young protesters at the Global Climate Strike in London on March 15, 2019. (Photo: Garry Knight/Flickr). Source: https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/09/18/global-climate-strike-kids-are-demanding-action-will-adults-act

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