6 things we learned at “Building a Green New Deal for the Many” - Chris Saltmarsh

The Green New Deal has taken US politics by storm, propelled into the mainstream by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement. Inspired by its transatlantic traction, members of the British climate and labour movements came together to discuss what building a Green New Deal through the UK Labour party might look like.

Organised by Labour Energy Forum and co-hosted by Momentum and Imperial College Labour Students, this is what we learned.

1. Climate change is a class issue

Faiza Shaheen, Director of CLASS and Labour candidate for Chingford & Wood Green, made it clear that climate change is an injustice perpetrated by the rich and experienced most harshly by the working class. Whether it’s the fossil fuel industry, banks or investors, a tiny elite profit from climate change and block government action.

Shaheen used the example of water shortages in Karachi hitting the poor and working class hardest as gangsters steal the little water that is available before selling it on for extortionate prices. Sakina Sheikh, a Labour Councillor and part of the Labour Energy Forum, brought it closer to home by pointing to Sadiq Khan’s tax on the poor. The policy extending the congestion charge is framed as tackling pollution, but passes on the financial costs of environmental injustice to working class and mostly BME drivers.

These environmental injustices are products of class warfare waged by the rich against the poor. Conceiving of meaningful climate action as class struggle, to take back our common wealth from the elite who monopolise resources, is the only appropriate response.

2. Only structural solutions will do

Rebecca Long-Bailey, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, began by lambasting those who suggest climate change is caused by individuals buying the wrong sort of tomato. This attitude, that individuals are both to blame for the crisis and responsible for fixing it through their consumption behaviours, is a neoliberal one. It distracts from climate breakdown’s structural causes and radical solutions. As Natasha Josette of Momentum’s National Coordinating Group said, when just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of emissions, individual guilt is a misguided response.

Long-Bailey outlined the four horsemen of the climate apocalypse: austerity, deregulation, privatisation and depoliticisation. Together these also constitute neoliberalism: the system we must overhaul. The Green New Deal requires unprecedented public investment to blow austerity ideology out of the water. The markets left to their own devices have failed on climate. Banks must be regulated on the finance they provide and energy companies limited to producing renewables. Privatisation must be rolled back in favour of public ownership to put the companies, resources and infrastructure needed to deliver a Green New Deal back into the hands of the people. Finally, we must politicise the climate crisis unashamedly. Only a socialist Green New Deal to rewire the economy transferring power and wealth to the working class will allow us to totally decarbonise.

3. Labour’s climate policy is better than you think

Many chastise Labour’s climate policy. Often, the problem is that they haven’t read it yet. Labour’s proposal for a ‘green transformation‘ is based on a powerful commitment to justice and includes 400,000 new green jobs across the UK. At the event, Long-Bailey announced a call for evidence of what the green transformation means for towns and cities. The party is naturally sensitive to anxieties around repeating Thatcher’s cruel assault on mining communities in the 80s. It won’t happen again. The green transformation will strengthen workers rights, increase wages and give unions power.

There is recognition that Labour’s current commitments are just the start. In a party of over 500,000 members coming from different contexts and sometimes with competing interests, developing transformative policy will inevitably take time. But Labour is moving quickly in the right direction.

4. Only Labour can deliver a Green New Deal

Representatives from Unite the Union, representing workers across the economy including the energy sector, made it clear that their priority is to put Labour into government. Labour is the only UK political party capable of meeting the challenges of the climate crisis by delivering a Green New Deal.

Not only does electoral arithmetic make other progressive parties irrelevant, but Labour is politically best placed to address the crisis. Its historic and institutional bond with trade unions and the organised working class means Labour’s climate policy will be accountable to the workers who the established environmental movement regularly treat as an afterthought.

5. Even progressive politicians need pressure from below

Holding public meetings and complaining about Labour policy on Twitter doesn’t get us very far in achieving the world we want to see. Beginning by quoting Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) martyr Joe Hill: “Don’t mourn, organise!”, Long-Bailey called on activists to “push us to do more”.

Even the most radical of Labour’s front bench are navigating competing pressures. They are pushed and pulled by capital and unions, their colleagues in the shadow cabinet and the right-wing of the PLP. Where is the grassroots? If we want Labour to adopt more ambitious climate policy, its our responsibility to create the political conditions for the party leadership be as radical as they want to be.

Zak Exley, founder of Justice Democrats and co-author of Rules for Revolutionaries, echoed this with lessons from President Obama’s eminently disappointing administration. As a Senator, Obama often spoke about the need for a green WWII-scale economic mobilisation. Without pressure from below, Obama was just one man in a system and culture that said no to such bold policies. Exley argued that more than Obama failing,“we let him down”. The grassroots were so enamoured by the historical significance of his election, they didn’t have a plan for pushing him to take action.

We can’t let this history repeat itself with a socialist Labour government. While in opposition, we must build organising capacity to push a Corbyn-led government to be as radical as possible on climate when in power.

6. There’s no Green New Deal without trade unions

Unite’s contribution made it clear that gas and other fossil fuels must be phased out, but “pragmatically”. They also made the case for including nuclear power in the energy mix to assure the human right of clean energy. Unite’s energy policy is set democratically at biennial Policy Conference. Like Labour, if rank and file union members want their leadership to go further on the climate transition, that will come from building consensus around the Green New Deal at the grassroots.

Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), representing civil servant and government agency workers, made the case that its not just the energy unions that need to be part of the conversation. A Green New Deal will be a revolution for every single worker in the economy. Unions including PCS are clear, unlike Unite, that airport expansion is incompatible with climate targets and we can’t just embrace “green jobs swap”. We need far-reaching structural change challenging the capitalist economy.

The tensions that exist within and between unions, Labour and the climate movement are no reason to leave them out of the debate. In fact, it is engaging these competing perspectives that will strengthen our Green New Deal as well as the movement we need to develop and deliver it.

Article first published on Bright Green.

Clare Hymer