Labour’s climate policy: the fine print

Submitted by Zac Muddle on 27 November, 2019 - 7:16 Author: Misha Zubrowski
labour policy

The environmental section of Labour’s manifesto is more ambitious than previous policy announcements, but less so than sections of the policy passed at this year’s Labour conference.

It has received much hype but less attention to detail. This article unpicks some of the finer points.

The rhetoric, at least to start, seems refreshingly left-wing, it suggesting a direct working-class approach. “Just 100 companies globally are responsible for the majority of carbon emissions”, they recognise. They thus commit to “work in partnership with the workforce and their trade unions in every sector of our economy, so that they lead the transition in their industries, creating new, good-quality jobs… Social justice will define Labour’s approach. We will make sure that the costs of the green transition fall fairly and are mostly borne by the wealthy and those most responsible for the problem.”

Welcoming the resurgent climate movement, they commit to “full mobilisation of national resources, both public and private”.

In the finer detail, the ruling class get more of a look in, and the ambitions are less bold. With co-ordination of investment “involving trade unions and business”, Labour’s “Regional Development Banks will be governed by boards made up of key local stakeholders such as local chambers of commerce, trade unions and councillors”.

The real substance is, of course, their aims. They promise:

• “at least one million well-paid” green jobs, and many green apprenticeships

• “to achieve the substantial majority of our emissions reductions by 2030”

• “£250 billion” over 10 years for “a Green Transformation Fund dedicated to renewable and low-carbon energy and transport, biodiversity and environmental restoration “

• An additional “£250 billion of lending for enterprise, infrastructure and innovation over 10 years some of which will go for environmental transition, from a “National Investment Bank, backed up by a network of Regional Development Banks”

This works out as £25 billion a year direct spending, compared to £66 billion in the One Million Climate Jobs publication, sponsored by many unions, of one decade ago; or the Green’s £100 billion.

In energy, they promise to build:

• 9,000 new wind turbines (7,000 offshore, 2,000 onshore)

• Enough solar panels to cover 22,000 football pitches

• New nuclear power

They commit to “bringing our energy and water systems into democratic public ownership.” However, the fine detail does not bear out this promise.

The energy industry is currently divided into several parts: generation, transmission, distribution, and supply. Generation is the power stations, wind and solar farms, etc., which create electricity. Transmission is high voltage transportation — through the national grid — across long distances: from where electricity is generated across the land, to particular cities.

Distribution is the running of towers, cables and meters to particular houses and buildings, within a city or region — lower voltage and shorter distance than transmission.

These three components comprise the technical, objective energy system — although artificially divided. Currently however there is also “supply”, with the big six energy companies — and some smaller ones — acting as brokers, to whom energy consumers pay money, intermediaries through which the other three components are funded.

Labour commits to nationalise transmission. A “new UK National Energy Agency will own and maintain the national grid infrastructure and oversee the delivery of our decarbonisation targets “.

It will also nationalise distribution. “14 new Regional Energy Agencies will replace the existing district network operators and hold statutory responsibility for decarbonising electricity and heat and reducing fuel poverty”.

And supply. “The supply arms of the Big Six energy companies will be brought into public ownership where they will continue to supply households with energy while helping them to reduce their energy demands.”

This is important and good. However, they do not mention taking generation into public ownership. In recent comments, Corbyn has stated that the public will have a “51% stake in all new wind farms”. In other words, these wind farms will be privately owned with the public exercising control only as shareholders. (And presumably older power facilities will be 100% private-owned).

The energy industry should be taken entirely into direct public ownership and integrated. Environmentally, generation is the most important component of the transmission.

In transport, they commit to invest in factories for electronic cars and metal reprocessing, aiming to end “new sales of combustion engine vehicles” by 2030, investing in charging points and “electric community car clubs”, “a vehicle scrappage scheme and clean air zones”.

As one alternative, they will give resources and powers to local councils to be able to take public ownership of busses, reinstating cut routes and providing free travel for under-25s. They will bring “railways back into public ownership” to make them more affordable, better staffed, expanded, and electrified, “using options including franchise expiry”.

The nod to “increase the funding available for cycling and walking” is followed by a dishonest fudge on aviation. “Any expansion of airports must pass our tests on air quality, noise pollution, climate change obligations and countrywide benefits.”

In the foreseeable future, no expansion could meet any reasonable tests. This devious caveat tries to square the circle of keeping champions of expansion and environmentalists happy, and gives lie to their supposed commitment.

The manifesto makes commitments on housing, research and development, steel, rewilding and tree planting, flood defences, food production, animal welfare, international finance and aid, and the establishing or expansion of the remit of various committees. They are positive first steps, but insufficient in ambition and precise commitment.

Labour’s manifesto is way ahead of their previous manifesto, and a league above the — at best — pitiful or commitments of the Conservatives and Lib Dems.

The main electoral contender for those serious about tackling climate change is the Green Party.

Many commitments, such as one million climate jobs, or bringing “all railways back into public ownership over ten years” are the same as or similar to Labour’s.

Some are better: committing to £100 billion a year funding, net zero by 2030, stopping the building of new runways, 100% rather than “nearly 90%” of energy from renewable and low carbon sources by 2030, and clearer bold targets about planting trees.

In some ways it is worse. Business — as in Labour’s — plays a significant role in their envisioned transition. In some areas, this seems to play a greater role: their targets around the energy industry seem to rely on market forces, regulation, and government spending, with no mention of taking it into public ownership. This is both more expensive and less effective: hence they lack the concrete programme to make their targets a reality. They also aim to “[p]rohibit the construction of nuclear power stations.”

One serious gap in the Green’s manifesto is any commitment to repeal anti-trade union legislation. Labour’s manifesto is better than the Green’s and a welcome step forward, in this respect, but should go further. While these laws remain in place, workers cannot legally strike over climate issues, an obstacle to any meaningful climate movement.

A rational materialist consideration of the political parties does not simply compare policies. Nor does it simply temper that with “tactical voting”. We must analyse the class forces at play, the way in which the changes can be won.

History demonstrates conclusively that progressive manifestos cannot simply be implemented by parliament. They rely on pressure from the labour movement and social movements to force the government to implement them, and to combat the corporations, bosses, and ruling class when they resist.

Of the options in the ballot box, Labour, as the party based — however imperfectly — on the trade-union and workers’ movement, is the best tool at our disposal for adding to and wielding that pressure. Getting Labour into power, arguing for a working-class environmentalist programme, and fighting to transform Labour, are all part of forging the labour movement as a whole into a force capable of winning the environmental policies we need.

We must place pressure on the democratic levers within Labour to push for bolder environmentalism. Many ambitious environmental policies were passed at this year’s national conference — more resolute than the manifesto by some way. Other necessary policies were kept from conference floor by the party’s and unions’ leaderships. We must raise all these policies, and challenge the leadership for leaving them by the wayside.

Momentum, the biggest left-wing grouping within Labour, have made a summary of Labour’s manifesto. However, beyond necessary simplification, they tend to oversimplify and exaggerate the manifesto as being more left-wing, more radical, than it is.

It is good that they think more radical policies would be better, and inadvertently, perhaps, encourage these ideas. It is bad that, by presenting it in this way, they cover for the Labour leadership selling out, fudging, and not being firm enough in various areas.

Environmentalists must fight for Labour in every seat in the coming general election. We must also highlight the shortfalls in the manifesto, and take Labour’s conference policy — rather than the manifesto — as the starting point now and after the election. Whatever the outcome, we will have to fight to have such policies implemented.

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