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Greenwashing the Status Quo

The Tories' weak climate plans offered Labour the perfect opportunity to propose a bold green agenda – but instead we got another sign that the party is shying away from tackling the urgent crises of our time.

The past week has seen Boris Johnson try to reset his failing administration with a ten-point plan – unashamedly dubbed a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ to showcase the Tories’ green credentials. Predictably, the plan utterly fails to address the climate crisis: reliant on unproven techno-fixes, it does nothing to combat the drivers of the crisis, and – perhaps most importantly – is backed by a pitifully small amount of investment.

The total new investment, with the spin removed, totals just £4 billion. For comparison, the government has pledged to spend seven times as much on roadbuilding and, recently, four times as much on expanding the UK’s military. The policies rely on a market which has utterly failed to tackle the climate crisis and put public health before private profit, simply look at the botched home insulation scheme promised by Sunak this summer. What’s more, the government continues to finance fossil fuels across the world through UK Export Finance.

Set against these commitments, the Tories’ climate announcement stands out for what it really is: a ‘greenwashed’ status quo dressed up as a green revolution. We’ve seen a real Green Industrial Revolution in Labour’s 2019 manifesto, which offered a comprehensive plan to decarbonise the UK by 2030 while improving the lives of working-class people. It was backed by the understanding that transforming our economy requires public ownership, mass investment (£250 billion of it) and a just transition for working-class communities.

This meant a commitment to take energy into public hands and to retrofit the entire UK housing stock by 2030, tackling fuel poverty while cutting bills and carbon. It embraced green public transport for the many, from rail nationalisation to free bus travel for under 25s. Universal broadband would be rolled out, reducing inequality and commutes, while key industries and utilities like water would be taken into public hands, ending the era of pollution for profit.

Labour’s programme would have created a million new green jobs and 320,000 climate apprenticeships, as well as retraining over 30,000 workers, the latter paid for by a windfall tax on fossil fuel companies – making the polluters pay, not ordinary workers. It offered a compelling and popular narrative, identifying the corporate actors responsible for the crisis, offering investment to left-behind parts of the country and ushering in a new age of public luxury.

The Tories’ watered down climate announcement should, then, offer a perfect opportunity for Labour to showcase a genuinely transformative response to the climate emergency. So it was disappointing to see the party’s lukewarm ‘Green Recovery Report’ retreat on so many of the flagship policies announced last year – and which were passed near-unanimously by members and trade unions at conference.

Making its first climate policy announcement under Keir Starmer, Labour appears to have scaled back its ambition in every regard. Long-Bailey’s original “Green Industrial Revolution” last year treated the climate as an unrivalled emergency, requiring the full resources of the state to create a future that was both sustainable and socially just. This new strategy, however, looks more like tinkering around the edges: pointing out small holes in Tory policy without offering a fundamentally alternative vision.

This can be seen in Labour’s approach to decarbonisation timelines, with no mention of the 2030 target mandated by conference last year, and reaffirmed by Ed Miliband just last summer. Instead, they focus on criticising Tory plans for meeting their 2050 target. Elsewhere, the party’s commitments on retrofitting housing have been vastly scaled back, now 7 million homes by 2030 rather than the 27 million, even as grassroots groups take it into their own hands to do this work.

Absent, too, is any talk of public ownership, vital for a just and rapid transition to a new, green economy. This means no proposals for public equity stakes in failing aviation companies, despite Ed Miliband supporting such a plan earlier this year, and no mention of the publicly-owned wind farms which would create 70,000 jobs. As the FBU’s Matt Wrack has noted, there is also a worrying lack of focus on empowering trade unions in a just transition.

On all of these counts, we are witnessing a transgression of party democracy. There has been no mention of the socialist Green New Deal motion passed nearly unanimously at conference only last year, or of the Labour manifesto that the new leadership pledged to build on. Consultation through the National Policy Forum was an anti-democratic farce, with submissions in support of Labour for a Green New Deal largely discounted, despite numbering more than two-thirds of the total. Prior to the report’s publication there was not even any consultation with CLP representatives on the NPF – which is patently not fit for purpose.

A transformative Green New Deal remains the only viable response to the climate emergency – and it is also a popular idea, which is why the Tories are trying to steal it. Covid-19 has shown the need for a state-led response in times of crisis to tackle the threat and ensure public health. Just 6% of people want life to ‘go back to normal’. The political space is there for Labour to stake out a new social settlement, tackling unemployment, climate and public health crises together.

But with a Labour leadership more interested in internal battles than fighting for the policies we need, the party is allowing Johnson to set the agenda. On the day of Johnson’s announcement, where he smoothly co-opted the language of a “Green Industrial Revolution,” Keir Starmer opted to remove the whip from Jeremy Corbyn, disregarding the NEC’s decision to reinstate his membership and miring the party in yet more internal conflict.

As for the landmark climate policy whose name has been adopted with great fanfare by his Tory counterpart, Starmer has failed to mention it publicly since becoming leader, including this week. That’s despite promising to “fight for a Green New Deal now, not in 2024” as recently as March during his leadership campaign.

This is a danger for Labour’s electoral coalition. Last year Labour was recognised as the party of climate, crucial for younger and urban voters. But this agenda is also one which can cut through in post-industrial areas – if sold correctly. That’s why it’s being co-opted by Boris Johnson: the Green New Deal is the best shot at industrial rebirth we’ve got, a way to provide decent and unionised jobs to areas long in decline. If, of course, it is properly funded.

The climate agenda today is not just the concern of an environmental lobby. It offers a programme of green jobs and economic transformation capable of building a better future for Britain. If Labour doesn’t take up the fight, the Tories will.