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Yes, Business Is the Enemy in the Fight Against Climate Change

This article by Chris Saltmarsh of Labour For A Green New Deal first appeared at Tribune.

Recently, Labour shadow minister Alex Sobel apologised to Keir Starmer for branding corporations ‘the enemy’ when it comes to climate change – but he was right: capitalism is destroying the planet.

Alex Sobel MP has apologised to Keir Starmer for saying that he used to think business was the enemy. Now even expressions of past-held divergent views are unacceptable under Starmer’s Labour regime: ‘We all think the same and we always have.’

Sobel was speaking on a podcast specifically in relation to climate change. He started by saying: ‘When I first came in as an MP I was like, I’m not taking meetings with any of these people, these people are the enemy, you know.’ He explained the softening of his approach since his election: ‘Now I take the meetings because I’m like, we haven’t got enough time, you know? That’s still my dream, but we aren’t going to have time to do that and save the climate. So we need to get them to make transformation now.’

When Starmer was asked about Sobel’s comments, he used the phrases ‘pro-business’ and ‘partnership with business’ five times in about four sentences. ‘Under my leadership, I’ve been very, very clear that the Labour party is pro-business. We’re more than pro-business, we want a partnership with business.’

What does Starmer means by ‘business’ here? What exactly does he want a partnership with? Business is just a euphemism used by politicians uncomfortable with the unpalatable terms of capitalism and profit-seeking corporations. Business means capital.

It is fossil capital profiting from extraction and banks providing the finance. It is insurance companies underwriting fossil fuel companies and the aviation industry burning vast quantities of fuel. Its also manufactures, food producers, real estate, tech, and services which exploit workers while contributing to emissions. Although some sections of capital are clearly more or less implicated in climate injustice, the private sector as a whole which has failed not only to decarbonise but to even try.

When profit-making is the primary objective for these businesses, considerations of workers’ rights, environmental protections, and emissions reductions are secondary. Transitioning our global economy from fossil fuels to renewables will be expensive and unlikely to be profitable in the short-term. A capitalist economy which prioritises profit over all else is just not able to deliver an energy transition on the required scale and timeline of its own accord.

If we were to ask centrist politicians why they are such enthusiastic supporters of ‘business’, they may regurgitate some tired line about job creation or wealth trickling down. Both justifications are unconvincing considering over a decade of fall in real wages and the present unemployment crisis.

In truth, Starmer doesn’t seem to believe much at all. He emphasised his eco-socialism and activist-lawyer credentials to win his internal Labour Party election, before pivoting to flag-waving authoritarian capitalism to appeal to an imagined electorate at large. Starmer is ‘pro-business’ because he thinks voters like the sound of it.

Is Sobel simply falling into line with the ‘pro-business’ attitude of Labour’s new leadership? During his podcast interview, Sobel says that several companies he’s met with have ‘seen the way the wind is blowing’ and that ‘the private sector is ahead of the UK government’ on climate change. Many companies are now acknowledging the scale of the climate crisis, but headline-grabbing net-zero targets have not come with associated action by either government or capital.

Sobel is a reasonably new MP, elected to Parliament for the first time in 2017 to Leeds North West. What has caused him to soften his previously antagonistic approach to capital in such a short timeframe? Are the pressures of parliament and the PLP inherently moderating? Does relentless lobbying by corporate interests grind you down while you’re less exposed to grassroots socialists? Does assuming the position of an elected representative in the dark heart of the British establishment, only to realise your continued political impotence from opposition, imbue a nihilistic pessimism as to the possibilities of socialist change?

I can’t say for sure what has inspired Sobel’s change of tune, but the direction of political travel for self-identifying socialists is concerning under Labour’s current leadership.

During the 2020 leadership election, I wrote for Novara Media arguing that members should elect a candidate who could formally lead the Labour Party and informally lead the UK climate movement to instil it with much-needed political strategy and vision. Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, activists created the conditions for his successor assume this mantel. Labour had a ready-made programme of socialist climate justice policies in the form of the Green New Deal. Trade unions and climate activists were beginning to come together in a new unity through the vehicle of the Labour Party.

Starmer couldn’t be further from taking on this responsibility. He has cowed away from putting forward a bold vision in response to the great crises of our generation. He has deprioritised climate justice in his communications and undermines the socialist Green New Deal with vacuous ‘pro-business’ rhetoric.

Whether Starmer likes it or not, there is a class war being waged, and it is by the rich against the poor. As we enter the decade in which the majority of work to arrest climate change must occur, Starmer must pick which side he’s on. Labour cannot be serious about climate and economic justice while pursuing this ‘partnership with business’.

A decisive response to the climate crisis necessarily involves a bold antagonism with the corporations driving it and profiting from it. Labour should be planning to rebalance class forces in our society by handing power to workers and trade unions and disempowering capital.

We need to transform ownership in our economy by bringing large sections into public ownership and out of profiteering private hands. Only with democratic public control of industry can we decarbonise quickly and fairly. If Starmer and other Labour MPs lack the confidence to assert this socialist vision for climate justice, in this most crucial decade, then they are certainly in the wrong job.

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