News from Nowhere: The Red and the Green
Failure to act now in the face of an impending environmental meltdown would cost the nation and the planet a lot.
Nothing’s ever black and white. Not even red and green.
The British Labour Party leader last month found himself fighting on all fronts to defend his plans for the UK to reach net zero carbon in energy production by 2030.
His old enemies at the Daily Mail inevitably rose to rally on behalf of the entrenched monied interests, which it likes to support. This time, it sought to stir its readers’ moral outrage at Sir Keir Starmer’s threats to the massive profits of transnational fossil fuel giants by suggesting that his plans would cost the average UK household a total of £1,000 a year.
Its attack on what it called “Labour’s bonkers energy plans” was explicitly based on arguments advanced by Conservative government ministers and oil industry lobbyists.
It was unclear, however, what British families would do with the extra grand in their pockets if they no longer had a habitable planet on which to spend it.
A more dangerous critique for Mr. Starmer, however, came from members of his party’s traditional support base, the country’s trade unions.
The assault on Sir Keir’s strategy was led by the GMB, a union originally established to promote the rights of general and municipal workers, as well as boilermakers but which now claims magnanimously to “represent all workers."
Its leadership, and other union activists, denounced the ambitious Labour policy as a “huge mistake” and voiced particular fears that drastic reductions in oil and gas production would send their members’ jobs – and therefore their own membership numbers – hurtling off a “cliff edge”.
The general secretary of the union Unite meanwhile described the party’s proposals as “simply not acceptable."
The Labour leader responded that the transformation of the United Kingdom into a clean nation based upon a green economy would in itself create “hundreds of thousands of jobs."
In a speech made last month, he added that the nation’s new green energy company would be based in Scotland, a region whose economy would be disproportionately affected by reductions in oil and gas exploitation, and one of course still teetering on the brink of choosing independence from the UK.
As Mr. Starmer struggles to push through his plans, there are two precedents of particular relevance here.
The first is the way in which Margaret Thatcher devastated communities across the country – and went to war with the trade unions – when she closed down many of Britain’s coal mines. The memory of that offense, though it took place forty years ago, remains sharp in many Labour-supporters’ minds.
Sir Keir has attempted to reassure those supporters by pledging that he’ll never allow “a repeat of what happened in coal mining when an industry came to an end and nobody had planned for the future."
It certainly seems clear that an extraordinarily ambitious move in the space of five years to end the country’s reliance on oil and gas would lead to the creation of many new jobs. But what’s just as important is where that work would be – to ensure that those new opportunities would be located in areas hit by job losses as a result of Labour’s promise to issue no further licenses for the production of gas or oil.
The anxieties of union leaders – in relation to their members’ jobs and their own – seem quite sincere. The closure of industries can devastate the lives of working people and their families and communities. But the failure to do so could well result in the extinction of our civilization or even of our species.
Sometimes long-term moral arguments have to be prioritized. Sometimes we have to see the bigger picture.
Another precedent then – and one that should cheer Sir Keir’s heart – would be his party’s commitment, prior to the 1997 election, to ban the UK production of anti-personnel landmines.
This was the first move in a short-lived plan to introduce to the British government an ethical foreign policy. It had been agreed upon despite opposition from key Labour-supporting constituencies, especially those in the Midlands, where arms manufacturing represented a core area of industry.
Labour, nevertheless, won that election by an extraordinary landslide and would go on to win the next two general elections too.
Not everything’s black and white. Sometimes ethical policies can be reconciled with economic realities. Sometimes red can turn green.
One small nation’s ambitions to go green won’t reverse the threat of global warming but may help to lead the way.
Keir Starmer’s plans for a green economy had been projected to cost around £28 billion in additional public borrowing each year. But to fail to act now in the face of an impending environmental meltdown would cost the nation and the planet a great deal more.
It had been the one truly radical strand of Keir Starmer’s policy agenda, so much so that it could have won or lost him the next election. It was a calculated gamble, which might also in the short term damage the UK economy. But it could also, he doubtless believed, help to save the world. And it, therefore, appeared to be a risk which this notoriously risk-averse politician seemed willing to take.
But a few days after Mr. Starmer had addressed trade unionists to defend his plans, his Shadow Chancellor announced that they wouldn’t after all be spending all of that annual £28 billion during the first years of a Labour administration but would instead gradually build up toward that full spend over the five-year lifetime of a Labour-led parliament.
One BBC presenter supposed that this climbdown would reinforce a prevalent view that Keir Starmer’s Labour Party had become typically “pusillanimous”. It certainly looked like the great vacillator had done it again.
This flip-flop approach to politics was hardly unprecedented. His radical proposal to abolish the House of Lords, for example, seemed swiftly to turn into a plan to increase its size. This apparent reversal had last month been headlined by the national broadcaster in terms of Labour’s “plans to expand Lords despite abolition pledge." This was followed by reports last week that any such reforms of the House of Lords would be delayed by at least two years.
Meanwhile, the party’s explanation for its volte-face on its promise of massive investments in green energy was that it didn’t want to spook the financial markets with proposals for unfunded spending, in the way that Liz Truss’ short-lived fiscal reforms had done.
Yet the difference between those two sets of spending plans seems clear. Ms. Truss wanted to increase borrowing in order to cut taxes for the rich. Mr. Starmer intends to do so to invest in green infrastructure, in a bid to ensure long-term economic and environmental sustainability.
But his hesitation to fully implement that strategy has made his net zero target appear increasingly impossible.
Like a startled deer caught in the headlights of a twenty-ton truck, Keir Starmer’s political instincts tend to freeze him to the spot. But, even for this master of stuttering indecision, simply doing nothing is hardly a helpful option here.
If he doesn’t have the courage of his convictions, he may well end up surrendering his big political prize. And, much worse than merely ensuring another five years of the Tories in power, this failure would represent an abject abdication of moral responsibility for which we may all have to pay the ultimate price.
Two weeks ago, Sir Keir declared that working people across Britain now “want to see if the fire of change still burns inside the Labour belly."
It was a curiously visceral metaphor for one usually so reserved.
Indeed, there will be those who wonder if the burning sensation in his abdomen might indicate not his passion so much as his anxiety about a policy commitment he may, thanks to his hesitancy, find increasingly difficult to deliver or even to digest.