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Towards a Green Democratic Economy

Policies to tackle the climate crisis are increasingly popular – but unless they're tied to a different model of ownership they won't change the system that is killing the planet.

Last week, the Conservatives quietly nationalised the failing Northern Rail service. It was their second such nationalisation in as many years. At the same time, pledges for public ownership of key services from water to Wifi have rolled in from every Labour leadership contender. At a glance, it seems as though public ownership – a Labour manifesto cornerstone denigrated throughout the election as a plot to ‘take us back to the 1970s’ – has floated into a position of mainstream consensus.

Indeed, polling proves nationalistion’s  popularity across the political spectrum. As Cat Hobbs, the director of We Own It, rightly points out in her recent article for Tribune, during the election, virtually no one was defending privatisation. The success of the Labour movement and organisations like We Own It in bringing public ownership back into the mainstream should be celebrated. However, the argument over ownership is not yet won; significant divides over what should be brought into public ownership, and under what terms, remain. 

Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives’ vision of ownership is rather different Labour’s: while bringing Northern Rail into public hands was undoubtedly the right choice, the Conservatives have sold the decision as a last ditch effort that would ideally have been avoided. And, while there is a clear consensus among Labour leadership candidates on the need to take key services into public ownership, they are divided on exactly why ownership matters.  More than a means of countering austerity and improving our public services, new structures of ownership should be understood as fundamental to tackling our most urgent societal challenges by transforming the logic by which the economy operates. This is particularly true of the climate crisis.

In Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution (GIR), public ownership of key sectors – rail, energy, water – featured strongly. In addition to lower costs and better services, the manifesto effectively made the case that eliminating the shareholder value imperative would facilitate increased investment in, for instance, electrifying rail or decarbonising power. What the GIR did not do was to identify public ownership of these industries as just one element of a broader assault on an economic model whose defining logic is concentrating wealth and power in ever fewer hands, with increasingly devastating consequences for both workers and nature. 

Immense disparities in wealth and power, within and between countries, provide the oxygen on which the climate crisis burns. Who owns our economy – and in whose interests it is managed – are fundamental for understanding how we avert deepening climate catastrophe. Wealth and carbon are inextricably linked: the richest 10% of the global population produce over half of all emissions. Attempting to decarbonise while leaving such extreme inequalities intact is a recipe for the sort of arguments that pit low-and middle-income economies as the problem, or veer into the neo-Malthusianism which continues to rear its ugly head in mainstream media and spaces like the World Economic Forum.

Addressing the links between inequalities of wealth and power and the climate crisis is the central innovation of the Green New Deal – and also where the GIR came up somewhat short. The Green New Deal is explicit in naming our broken economic model as the root cause of the climate crisis, and provides a clear vision for addressing it with a new economic consensus. Ownership will be central to the success of this project.

A new degree of consensus has been won in the UK over public ownership of public services. The task now is to counter the dogma of privatisation by advocating changes in ownership that go beyond nationalising failing railways. The argument must be made for a truly democratic economy.  This means doing the work of embedding democratic ownership in communities wherever possible, whether learning from venture like Nottingham’s municipally-owned Robin Hood energy company, or building new ‘Public Commons Partnerships’ to reverse the damage to public wealth inflicted by PPPs and PFIs.

It also means ensuring the Labour movement not only upholds core GIR policies like coastal community-owned wind farms, but continues to champion less overtly climate-focused ideas like the Inclusive Ownership Fund, which provides a blueprint for combatting the devastation wrought by shareholder primacy to the environment and worker alike.

Crucially, it’s not enough for ownership to be public – it needs to be democratic too. And if we are to avoid the worst of the climate crisis, we need to take the current momentum behind public ownership of public services and extend the vision further.

We can’t succeed by cutting carbon from our society as it is. Rather, we need to target the crisis at its source. This means building a sustainable, democratic economy, one where extraction and rentierism are punished rather than rewarded, and where working people share the wealth they create in common.