From Brighton to Glasgow

By Diarmaid Kelliher

COP26 was a failure in many ways. Of course, for the most part, this had little to do with the Labour Party. Nevertheless, for Party activists, it was another example of the Labour leadership’s refusal to articulate a clear view of the climate crisis – one that places the blame firmly on the elites that perpetuate and profit from our current, disastrous economic system.

This was probably not surprising considering what happened at Labour Conference in September, where Starmer and other leading figures were determined to distance themselves from the Party membership, including by openly rejecting central elements of the Green New Deal motion passed by delegates. However, events on the streets of Glasgow in the last couple of weeks offer some hope for moving past the divisions that were evident in Brighton.

The Green New Deal at Labour Conference

The path of the Green New Deal motion at Party Conference provides important insights into how the Party has been approaching climate politics. I was elected delegate from one of the constituency parties that submitted the Green Jobs Revolution motion, organised by Labour for a Green New Deal. A week before conference, the motion was ruled out of order by the Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC). The reasons for this and the subsequent reversal of the decision are – at least from my perspective – still unclear. Yet, when we appealed to the CAC, the official reason given, that the motion was not on “one subject”, revealed a worrying ignorance about the very nature of the Green New Deal.

Of course, it is not unreasonable in general for someone to ask what a National Care Service has to do with a Green New Deal, to take one example raised by the CAC. It is the responsibility of us all to make the case as clearly as possible that care jobs are green jobs, and that a socialist Green New Deal must be a feminist one as well. But that the Labour Party itself would fail to make this connection – to the extent that it wasn’t even willing to see it discussed on Conference floor – suggests a Party considerably behind where it needs to be in its understanding of climate crisis.

That, however, may be a charitable interpretation. The other view is that the attempt to block it was largely a factional one. And considering other actions during Conference, this is hardly implausible. Significant parts of Conference were dominated by rules changes instigated by the leadership which sought to shift the balance of power in the Party away from the membership and to rig any leadership election so that the left can’t get on the ballot.

The Labour leadership were primarily concerned to comfort themselves that 2015 and Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader couldn’t happen again. At the same time, on policy issues, their desire to distance themselves from the left meant that they completely failed to seize the moment. This was clear in relation to the Green New Deal. As the nature of the fuel crisis started making headlines, and with Conference passing a motion that included the “public ownership of energy including energy companies”, Starmer opposed nationalisation of the Big Six on national TV.

Conference wasn’t all bad, by any means. A large number of excellent ideas came through the debates on the floor. Motions on the right to food, gendered violence, solidarity with Palestine, social care, and many more, showed that much of the membership is still committed to concrete solutions to the major issues of our time. This was evident with the Green New Deal motion, where delegates overwhelmingly passed a radical programme of action.

This is not insignificant. It demonstrates that the Party has not been straightforwardly won by a right which, as Stuart Hall famously observed, has few ideas or convictions other than the desire to defeat the left. Despite the declining membership, Labour is still a large organisation, and many of the dominant ideas among the membership and affiliates are ones being developed by socialists within the party.

Still – on the Green New Deal, Palestine, and a statutory sick pay at liveable levels, among other matters, the leadership has also made it clear that they really don’t care what Conference thinks. This doesn’t mean that passing these motions doesn’t matter at all. It’s a way of getting important ideas discussed widely and of demonstrating the strength of feeling on such issues by Party members. Nevertheless, it is clear that Conference cannot be relied upon to shape Labour policy.

Building a Green New Deal in the labour movement

For those of us who still think Labour can play an important role in averting climate catastrophe through a socialist Green New Deal, this raises important questions of how our energy is best spent. It is worth acknowledging that although our ideas have had a big impact within the Party, we can hardly say they are hegemonic within the labour movement.

Two ‘Green New Deal’ motions were passed at Conference. It seems unlikely that GMB, which provided a lot of the impetus behind the other motion, would have given it that label left to their own devices. There is little value, I think, in regurgitating in detail the discussions of the initial meeting in which we were tasked with producing one motion. In reality, although hours passed, little of substance was said until GMB led a minority of delegates into another room to come up with their own motion.

This was probably inevitable, and the only way to get to bed that night. But the discussion started from the point that we have fundamental disagreements that are simply unbridgeable. Part of the reason for this was the question of nuclear. But more broadly, the GMB appears to have little faith that the Green Jobs Revolution would actually protect their members (or at least their members in the energy sector.)

This was not something that could be solved in a compositing meeting. It is, though, a conversation that needs to continue outside the confines of conference. There is no easy way to achieve consensus on these issues, but finding a shared way forward is worth the energy of activists. For a Green New Deal to provide the socialist transformation that is necessary to combat the climate crisis and do so in the interests of working class people, it needs to be the goal of the entire labour movement.

This is where COP26 offered some more hope. For eight days during COP, Glasgow’s cleansing workers went on strike. GMB members were joined on their vibrant picket lines by climate activists from across the globe, tenant union members, and others from the wider labour movement. In turn, striking workers took part in climate demonstrations with banners proclaiming the unity of struggles for social and climate justice. Of course, it is easy to fudge differences in such moments. Nevertheless, it is through such experiences of concrete solidarity in struggle – not in Labour Party compositing meetings – that we can start to build and strengthen those bonds we sorely need if we are going to make a Green New Deal a reality.

Diarmaid Kelliher is an activist with Labour for a Green New Deal and was a CLP delegate to Labour Conference 2021 for Glasgow Kelvin.

Image: COP protest, London November 6th, by Mike Phipps

Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts