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Labour’s Climate Conservatism

This recent article by Chris Saltmarsh, in Tribune magazine, is very welcome. 

Chris points to the apparent drift in Labour policy away from the radicalism of the 2017 and 2019 manifestos in terms of the environment.

Clearly this is at odds with Keir Starmer’s leadership campaign pledges to put the environment and the Green New Deal at the centre of policy.
That being the case, the present trajectory of Labour under a Starmer leadership does not bode well for Labour Party engagement at the top level with the COP 26 process and the climate activism on the ground around it.

Keir Starmer’s failure to involve grassroots campaigners in Labour’s climate strategy betrays a lack of radicalism in the party’s vision – which is out of step with the policies we need to prevent disaster.

On Tuesday 12th January 2021), Keir Starmer tweeted a Zoom screenshot of a meeting he held with the CEOs and Directors of Britain’s largest environmental NGOs. In attendance were Ed Miliband, Matt Pennycook, and Luke Pollard as members of the Shadow Cabinet with a climate brief. The NGOs represented were Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the WWF, the Wildlife Trust, the RSPB, Green Alliance, and the National Trust.

Such a meeting may seem innocuous for a Labour leader, but the climate movement has been turned upside-down over the last two years. As significant as those who were invited is those who were not. Climate activist Scarlett Westbrook quickly pointed out that Starmer is the only Westminster party leader who hasn’t met with climate youth strikers over the last two years. Joe Brindle also tweeted that Starmer’s diary team had ‘fobbed off’ repeated invitations to a roundtable with the UK Student Climate Network. Green New Deal and global justice campaigners have also struggled to make direct contact with Labour’s new leader since he was elected last April, despite their best efforts.

Equally conspicuous for their absence at this meeting is the UK’s labour movement. Labour’s affiliated unions were central to the successful campaign for a socialist Green New Deal at Labour Conference 2019 and have continued to be strong advocates since. Unions have to be at the heart of any climate movement to guarantee an energy transition is truly just for workers.

Despite Starmer’s glowing description of them, the reality is that the NGO directors he met with are no longer ‘leading climate and environmental campaigners’. They may lead their respective organisations, but those NGOs have slipped behind youth strikes, Green New Deal campaigners, Extinction Rebellion, global justice activists, and trade unions in terms of leadership of the climate movement over the last couple of years. It’s these organisations which are bringing the energy, innovation, and political direction, while establishment NGOs scramble for relevance amid a crisis which requires radical solutions beyond their capacities.

Starmer was further criticised because the meeting was exclusively made up of white people. We know that the climate crisis is a racist crisis. It disproportionately harms people and communities in the Global South because the same colonial-capitalist system which has produced climate change has entrenched unequal vulnerability to its impact. Labour’s socialist Green New Deal is internationalist at the core. When Steve Turner, Assistant General Secretary of Unite the Union, proposed the motion at Labour Conference 2019, he highlighted the importance of climate reparations for the Global South. Labour’s 2019 manifesto included a pledge to transfer green technologies to the Global South for free or cheap. Green New Deal activists have consistently called for supply chain justice and reform to international institutions.

So far, we’ve not heard much on this from Starmer’s Labour. His underwhelming ‘Internationalising the Green New Deal’ policy document from the leadership election focused on working through existing international institutions like COP (the annual UN climate conference, hosted by the UK in 2021). But these institutions are set up to advantage global North countries, entrench the status-quo, and undermine the ability of the global South to decarbonise, adapt, and receive fair compensation.

The truth is that if you’re hosting a meeting with the CEOs of UK environmental NGOs, it will necessarily be an all-white meeting. This is a deep-rooted problem the NGO industry has to address, but it is also indicative of the limitations of selecting this group to take your climate advice from. It is unlikely that participants in that meeting were pushing for a radical new approach to international climate diplomacy or a stronger stance on climate reparations. The lack of racial diversity is interwoven with the NGOs lack of political diversity and ambition.

The meeting is representative of who Starmer is now taking advice from, compared to Jeremy Corbyn while he was leader. Corbyn was famously responsive to grassroots organisers. His first engagement as leader back in 2015 was to speak at a Refugees Welcome rally. He gladly met with youth strikers and Green New Deal campaigners. Labour for a Green New Deal was formed precisely because of the political space Corbyn’s leadership created for member organising. Starmer, on the other hand, seems to disdain members and social movements. He is currently overseeing a factional war against the Labour Left as members’ speech is restricted and many CLP officers are expelled. He has let movement activists down with weak abstentions on the Spy Cops bill.

Starmer is more comfortable taking his lead from the directors and CEOs of professional NGOs than his own members and grassroots campaigns. The problem is that the people in his meeting collectively do not hold the right approach to climate justice. During the 2019 general election, several of those organisations backed a policy of net-zero emissions by 2045 (just five years earlier than the Tories commitment). During the same election, Corbyn’s Labour backed net-zero by 2030. These NGOs have nothing to say on the importance of expanding public ownership to climate justice. They have little to say on global justice by reforming supply chains, offering reparations, or transforming international institutions.

The online backlash against the meeting indicated the growing frustration that members and climate campaigners are feeling towards Starmer’s approach to climate. He does not engage with the movement’s real leaders, and his policies show it. Labour’s Green Economic Recovery report released in November was widely criticised for its lack of ambition in the face of two monumental crises: climate and pandemic. The report ignored the submissions of members, over 70 percent of which were versions of Labour for a Green New Deal’s recommendations.

These NGOs have a strong voice and a serious contribution to make, and Keir Starmer should listen to them – but this shouldn’t be at the expense of grassroots campaigners and members. Labour’s climate policy will continue to suffer as a result. 2024 is a long time away and the climate crisis is intensifying day by day. ‘Real opposition’, if this is what his supporters believe Starmer represents, must include setting a radical agenda for climate justice today by working with movements to promote a socialist Green New Deal. Any other approach is unacceptable climate delay.

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