Where now for the Green Industrial Revolution?
by Brian Durrans
Under the current Fixed-term Parliaments Act (which it plans to scrap), Boris Johnson’s government can remain in power for five years if it weathers the storms ahead. Not only the metaphorical storms of political action and social unrest provoked by unpopular legislation but also actual storms, floods and other meteorological mayhem which will remind everyone that too little is being done to meet the UK’s modest climate control commitments.
PRICE OF DEFEAT
The price of losing the election will almost certainly be paid by those already worst-off after nearly a decade of capitalist austerity and the many more whom Labour’s alternative programme would have helped; and the Government’s foreign policy puts at risk millions of others in Britain and around the world. If – and that’s currently a big if - the Labour and progressive movement mobilises on the scale required, some of the worst excesses of Johnson’s economics might be mitigated and the warmongers reined-in. However those who – urged on by proven liars Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell - lumbered Labour with its second EU referendum policy, and thus lost it the election, have jeopardised the very future of the planet. If you want the full power of the state used to safeguard present and future generations, Boris Johnson is last person you want as Prime Minister.
Labour’s Green New Deal (GND) and Green Industrial Revolution (GIR) – see the 2019 manifesto (1) - were ably championed by Shadow Minister, Rebecca Long-Bailey but denied the attention they deserved during the election. Unfortunately, neither Green New Deal nor Green Industrial Revolution was (or is) as simple and catchy as the winning Tory mantra of “Get Brexit Done”. Might “Green New Brexit” have fared better? Were Labour’s green policies frog-marched into the manifesto rather than field-tested first? Was the manifesto itself too much for most voters to take in? It did a great job of linking other commitments to the core of its green policy; but that core needed to shine like a beacon for everything else.
Recrimination won’t win back five years for effective action on climate change. Labour’s new leader and depleted MPs must press the Government for what’s needed and hold them to account, and those who elected and canvassed for these MPs must press them in turn. But the matter can’t be left to Parliament or the normal channels of party politics, essential though both are to what needs to be done, which is at once complicated, controversial and costly. In the absence of a Labour Government we need to press the one we have as hard as possible and build the movement that alone can make the irrefutable argument for climate action irresistible.
WINNING COMMITMENT AND ACTION
The argument itself is robust but needs to be kept sharp and accessible; most of the matching policy framework is in place or can be soon. If many already feel anger, urgency and commitment, the essential task of winning key sections of the working class to this cause will take patience and organisation, especially in view of the Party’s setback in its former heartlands. Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution plan is fit for purpose or can be updated and popularised as the standard against which Johnson’s efforts in this direction can and must be judged. Labour and all who care about this issue need to start fighting the next election now.
When working people are called on to support their exploiters in times of war or economic difficulty, they’re told that the short-term sacrifices they make will be rewarded by longer-term benefits to themselves - in the case of war, even by dubious benefits like being remembered when someone wears a poppy.
In a parliamentary democracy, the government often tries a similar confidence trick when seeking re-election. A promise to restore to the social wage a credible yet still lesser sum than it had previously withheld, such as during the near decade-long and - at the time of writing - not-yet abandoned austerity, may be presented as a “reward” to those who never consented to the sacrifices which government policies forced them to make, rather than a bribe for votes. It’s not clear, if Johnson didn’t win on Brexit alone, that many believed his promises to restore funding to schools and hospitals, of which Tory and coalition austerity had deprived them. So, even though saving the planet really is in the common interest, we can’t use the “jam tomorrow” argument, because many people are justifiably suspicious of it.
If at least some of the measures in the Green New Deal can be implemented under this Tory government, people will need to be convinced that it really is in their own interests and in the interests of those they care about, both now and in the short-term future. Quick benefits, rather than just promises of transformations favouring only those who outlive us, will also be essential well before Labour has the chance, in government, to enact the full GND. What’s worse: letting the Tories claim credit for what we force them to do to do or sabotaging the planet?
One precedent where longer-term benefits really did justify short-term sacrifices was the Second World War. Helping the UK grasp and accept what needed to be done then were both the example of the Soviet Union and our own, powerful anti-fascist movement, based in the working class and active during the previous few years. Today we lack the equivalent examples and arguments in the working class itself with which to help popularise the GND, but getting it implemented at least in part by a reluctant government would still be a step forward.
If most people are understandably sceptical of apparently self-interested scare-mongering from the upper-class, there’s also a broad if shallow understanding that the environment and therefore all of us are currently in real danger. David Attenborough’s programmes attract a mass audience. But diet, doing without plastic bags or recycling household waste, instead of being experienced as a step in the right direction, can seem mere antidotes to feeling powerless: “at least I’m doing something”. People need and deserve a sense that their actions matter. That means embedding understanding through shared engagement focused on specific, strategically-coherent, achievable targets, where it is clear what progress has been made and what’s still to do. Whatever the issue, the best way to learn about it and to deal with it confidently is through co-operating with others.
To apply that understanding and confidence to best effect is ideally done not through ad hoc arrangements but existing structures, political and workplace party or union branches, community groups or campaigning organisations, all with sustained memberships giving capacity for outreach and alliances. However infectious their spontaneity, informal assemblies or networks may unravel when enthusiasm wanes. It can’t be over-emphasised that, as a strategy for climate justice, and especially when the government is not on your side, the GND needs to be rooted in the Labour Movement and help win elections.
PRIORITY: GLOBAL HEATING
The priority is not plastic in the oceans nor alleviating drought here or floods there, but to curb global heating. That’s where the big science is, and we already have most of the national and supranational bodies in place to commission and interpret the evidence, formulate targets for states and corporations and call for compliance. Any decent government could help steer this process not just here but across the world.
But we still need states, shareholders and citizens to hold big polluters to account. People need to hold governments, parties and local authorities to their own commitments, and to ensure those commitments and measures taken are the right ones. There’s no substitute for state intervention (most effective as socialist planning), but we should also be clear that for maximum effect personal contributions are also necessary.
This approach worked well in the worldwide movement against South African Apartheid. The boycott campaign was easy for consumers to join, who knew or at least hoped that by refusing to buy Outspan oranges, for example, they were contributing to the struggle for justice. Many who began as ethical consumers later got involved in other ways but even just on their own such acts felt right, and they helped people to a deeper understanding of the struggle to which even just a trip to the supermarket really did contribute. What today’s cynic might dismiss as “virtue signalling” at least signalled that it was indeed a virtue to take action.
The GND can even do even better than that by benefiting people materially as well as morally. For this to be understood, our focus should be on the GND in its specific form of the Green Industrial Revolution – producing and consuming more of what we need rather than producing (or importing) and consuming what we don’t. This can be grasped by anyone and everyone as simple, common-sense and making most people better off. If Tories can’t implement that, Labour must try to by any means necessary.