‘Labour is a moral crusade, or it is nothing’ – Harold Wilson
Four years ago, dozens of Labour Party conference delegates, activists, trade unionists and members of the shadow cabinet met in a packed conference room of the Grand Hotel, Brighton. They stayed until 3am to hammer out the motion that would become the basis for Labour’s 2019 Green New Deal and, when it was passed on conference floor the next day, it felt like a new dawn had broken. At the 2019 general election Friends of the Earth rated it as the best for climate and ecological issues, surpassing even the Green Party.
The cornerstone of this policy was a massive expansion of public ownership, with the creation of one million good, unionised jobs through a programme of £250 billion in direct government investment. This Green Transformation Fund was to be implemented through the creation of a National Investment Bank, backed by a network of Regional Development Banks, with a mission to decarbonise the economy while increasing productivity, factoring in the cost of inaction on climate. It promised net-zero food production by 2040, 90% of energy decarbonised by 2030 with legally binding targets for nature restoration for every decade until 2050, getting more radical and demanding as time went on.
Putting utilities into public ownership could have lifted hundreds of thousands out of fuel poverty, while curbing the extortionate profits extracted from the public that further drive up the cost of living. It would have enabled proper investment into water infrastructure, after £57 billion in corporate profits, finally ending decades of neglect and profiteering since privatisation.
This was a policy programme that identified those standing in the way of progress on climate, promising to delist any company from the London Stock Exchange that didn’t meet the decarbonisation targets. It ensured the burden of the transition fell on those who’ve disproportionately benefited from, and contributed to, the fossil economy for decades by closing the myriad of loopholes in our tax system and taxing the rich properly. It recognised that climate breakdown will hit the poorest the hardest and widen existing global inequalities. It ruled out the use of offsetting and would instruct the Committee on Climate Change to include the emissions of imports as well as domestic emissions, so we don’t blame the global south for our consumption.
These policies were Labour’s moral crusade, guided by principles of honesty, fairness and equality.
Since that night in Brighton more than 100 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide have been emitted, rising to the highest ever levels humans have produced, and more than 100,000 people in the UK alone have lost their lives to air pollution. Since then, our situation has only worsened, the scale of the crisis has grown and with it the scale of the response required.
The COVID-19 pandemic shattered the convenient myth that governments could not effect change in the economy, or that they work like household budgets, needing to balance their incomes and outgoings. Alongside a massive shrink in GDP and tax revenue, we saw a huge increase of more than £170 billion in government spending to address the ongoing crisis.
Four decades of economic dogma came tumbling down as the Tory government was forced to enact some of the largest state intervention since the construction of the welfare state. Spending commitments that had been widely derided by the media, think-tanks and politicians in the run up to the 2019 election, were now paling in comparison to the scale and scope of measures to tackle COVID-19.
In the face of this, with the opportunity to go even further as the failures of our current economic system are laid bare, Labour’s current leadership has not risen to meet the most pressing issues of our time. They’ve hidden from them.
At a first glance, Labour’s Green Prosperity Plan looks similar to its 2019 Green New Deal and retains many of the aims. However, the key difference here is that it has been gutted of all the financial mechanisms previously set out to achieve them. Instead of the 2019 Green New Deal plan of establishing a network of national and regional investment banks with £400 billion direct government investment, we’ve been left with a national wealth fund with an initial £8 billion of state funding, which will attempt to leverage 75% of its capital from private investment.
Concerns have been raised over Labour’s recent remarks on NHS reform, raising questions about the role of the private sector in public service and infrastructure delivery. These announcements suggest that the party is returning to the now disgraced New Labour strategy of public-private partnerships (PPPs) and Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs). These schemes consisted of the private sector providing the upfront capital costs for public infrastructure projects in exchange for generous financial payments for the next two or three decades. Research suggests that they have consistently been more expensive in the long run, providing up to 60% return on investment to shareholders and costing up to 40% more. Decarbonisation will require massive new infrastructure projects and a similar approach would see the cost of zero carbon massively inflated.
Gone too are the tax rises on the wealthy, corporations and the added financial regulations to delist polluters from the stock exchange. Labour’s leadership have said they won’t issue any new oil and gas licenses, but that ‘the existing oil and gas fields in the North Sea would run until 2050’ and the party has refused to talk about revoking those licenses.
Refusing to renationalise energy, water and mail is justified by the leadership through the language of austerity and the disingenuous notion that it would be too expensive. Instead, they have opted for the much weaker stance of creating a publicly owned energy generation company and subsidising bills for consumers – leaving vital public infrastructure to the private sector to continue ripping off the taxpayer. With no democratic control over our energy system and no removal of the parasitic middlemen profiting off the climate crisis, we’re left with few instruments to make the sweeping changes needed for a fairer and greener grid.
We’re left with the task of transitioning from the fossil economy, without the weaponry needed to launch it. The leadership’s goals therefore ring hollow, falling well short of addressing the scale and magnitude of the overlapping crises we face.
As we finish what’s likely to be the final Labour conference before the next election and facing the possibility of a new Labour government, we can expect a final update on the Green Prosperity Plan.
Labour conference fundamentally had two roles: to speak to the country and to speak to the party. So far, Starmer’s Labour has only been targeting a slim demographic of voters and distancing themselves from their core base of support. This conference was their last chance to reconnect with the 10.2 million who voted for them at the last election. Regardless, their ongoing strategy of talking down their ability to affect change in the economy has left millions feeling despondent and politically homeless.
With the lack of any noticeably more bold or ambitious policy commitments coming out of this conference, it is unlikely that we will see anything more at all in the run up to the next election. With the recent announcement of draconian new conference regulations designed to prevent any genuinely left wing policy being debated, the refusal to bow to popular pressure on energy renationalisation and the continued targeted ostracisation of even the softest of the soft-left figures, the chance seems to have faded out of view. This conference is therefore unlikely to change much, except the dawning realisation of some – that the upcoming Labour government will not be able to solve the overlapping crises we face.
There are still some who claim that once in office Labour will U-turn and begin to implement all the left-wing policies they’ve been deriding while in opposition. Whatever the outcome of this conference, we cannot bet the future stability of the climate on their optimism.
Alex Champion is a socialist, trade unionist and climate justice activist. He previously sat on Labour for a Green New Deal’s leadership team and Momentum’s climate justice committee. He is currently a postgraduate student in physics.
Image: Flickr/Jeremy Corbyn.
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