On Monday June 25, Westminster took two decisions which were a major breach in Britain’s commitment to combatting climate change – as well as being disastrous for other reasons, writes Terry Conway. There has been a great deal of coverage about the decision to proceed with a third runway at Heathrow, but not enough analysis of what led to the debacle- and how those of us committed to ensuring that it doesn’t now proceed should be doing now.
The second decision has been less discussed – not to fund the tidal lagoon at Swansea Bay. Business and Energy Secretary Greg Clark said the £1.3bn project was not value for money, despite claims by developers Tidal Lagoon Power (TLP) a revised offer made it cheaper.
Even at the original strike price of £89.90 per megawatt hour this is below the strike price of £92.50/MWh for 35 years given to the new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point C in Somerset. So it’s apparently OK to pay high prices for the deadly technology of nuclear and produce waste we cannot dispose of safely, but not for the first ever tidal lagoon which would produce enough renewable energy for 155,000 properties in Wales. And it’s clear that the first tidal lagoon scheme would be more expensive than subsequent uses of the technology – by starting in Wales, Britain would have been pioneering this vital technology and could benefit from it later.
But despite the fact that the government’s announcement on Swansea came on the same day as the vote on Heathrow, that illustration of the Tories determination to ignore Britain’s climate change commitments was not mentioned in the four hour debate.
It was left to Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood to raise it in the Welsh Assembly and to ask Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones to set up a public energy company in Wales which could save the scheme. Though such a commitment made in Labour’s last manifesto for Wales, Jones did not reply directly, but merely repeated his regret at Westminster’s decision. While the Welsh assembly has less power than the Scottish Parliament, such action would be within their power and it seems a real missed opportunity to act. It was great to see a strong statement on Swansea Bay from Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey, but the fact that it doesn’t call on the Labour-led Welsh government to do anything now seriously weakens it.
Returning to Heathrow, the campaign against expansion is by no means over. Even in parliamentary terms, Grayling’s made clear that the policy statement agreed on Monday night “does not grant final planning consent.” A number of those who spoke in the debate to support the proposal made it clear that they did so with reservations and wanted to see conditions met – conditions which its plain to see cannot and will not be met.
Problem for ecosocialists
But it was a major problem for all environmentalists, especially for ecosocialists in the Labour Party, that the majority of Labour MPs (119 to 74) voted for the Tory government, while some members of the Shadow Cabinet (notably Rebecca Long-Bailey and Angela Rayner) abstained. Former Labour MP makes a powerful point when he refers to the debacle as “Labour’s Maginot line moment”.
And of course the Tories were rubbing their hands with glee at the intervention of Unite’s Len McCluskey who wrote to all Labour MP’s asking them to back expansion after Shadow Secretary of State Andy McDonald issued a statement showing the proposals failed Labour’s four tests.
Chris Grayling was eager to make the point in the Westminster debate: “It is unusual for me to find myself campaigning on the same side of the argument as Len McCluskey of Unite the Union, but the trade union movement has been a strong supporter of this, as have business groups in all corners of the United Kingdom”. Unite members like myself who strongly disagree with our General Secretary on this question have a major job of work to do here to fight for a jobs conversion approach within the union.
And while McDonald’s press statement was sharp, his intervention into the debate was more contradictory. Some of the points were effective. His statement that some 40,000 people die prematurely each year because of poor air quality was echoed by others pointing out that its over 9000 a year in London.
At the centre of his speech was the following: “Today’s vote has been scheduled just days before the Government’s own advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change, is due to publish a report that is expected to warn that increasing aviation emissions will destroy Britain’s greenhouse gas targets. It appears that the vote on the national policy statement has been planned for today so that hon. and right hon. Members are left in the dark about how much the Secretary of State’s plan will obliterate the UK’s climate change commitments. That is not only reckless, but shows contempt for Parliament and for the environment….Global warming is the single most important issue facing the world, yet Members of this House are being asked to vote today without full knowledge and without the full set of facts.”
Powerful stuff, doing a good demolition job of a bad case poorly put forward by the Tories – but seriously undermined by another statement: “Labour wants successful and growing aviation and aerospace industries across the UK”.
Hopeless. You won’t convince McCluskey, you won’t convince those Labour MPs in the NorthWest if you imply the problem is this particular proposal. The implication is what? Boris island? Expand GatwicK?? Instead Labour needs to be pushing the sort of argument made here in Chris Saltmarsh’s article “No Jobs on a Dead Planet”, and in Gabriel Levy’s piece here as well as the more detailed case in PCS’s Just Transition and Energy Democracy: a civil service trade union perspective.
You won’t convince those campaigning Vote No Heathrow who are organising around slogans such as Climate genocide and are rightly against any expansion of airport capacity. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who has campaigned against Heathrow expansion for a long time, participating in mass action as well as making the case in the community, after stating that he believed court action would succeed, finished his speech by arguing that this will be “the iconic, totemic battleground of climate change, which will attract protesters and campaigners from across Europe. This issue will not go away.”
There were other powerful points made by other Labour MPs in the debate. Mary Creagh, who I don’t often quote with approval, stated that the Department of Transport’s analysis “refers to two ways to reduce carbon emissions from flights: one is single-engine taxiing; the other is ensuring that 12% of fuels in aeroplanes are renewable. Neither of those is currently in operation in Heathrow or any other airport in the world”. Thus she destroyed a key argument of those supporting expansion, that new technology would miraculously rescue Britain’s climate change targets. These people clearly don’t get the precautionary principle.
Another myth from the government, challenged among others by Justine Greening, was that 250,000 more flights would involve not one extra car journey. My favourite soundbite was from Clive Lewis, who pithily summed up the division thus: “tonight’s votes will break down into two camps of those who believe we can negotiate with climate physics, and those who do not”.
The other visible abstentions in the debate of course came from the Scottish National Party, who had been expected to vote for the proposal until quite late in the day. This shift of position was justified in the debate on the basis that there was no guarantee from the government that the 200 slots now promised by Heathrow would be sacrosanct. After a vigorous campaign to persuade them to vote against, Director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, Dr. Richard Dixon said:
“By abstaining, SNP MPs have stayed silent and this awful proposal has passed despite the clear and repeated warning about its effect on the climate. The SNP has clearly felt the pressure from the thousands of people who have been emailing their MPs, but being a climate leader means taking hard decisions and voting no to destructive projects like the Heathrow runway. You can’t abstain on climate change.
“While better than supporting the project, the SNP’s symbolic abstention has done nothing to challenge this damaging, polluting plan. Heathrow is already the UK’s biggest carbon polluter and we should be finding ways to drastically cut emissions from the aviation sector rather than encouraging them to further drive climate change.
“While new climate legislation has been introduced at Holyrood to increase climate ambition, it’s impossible to see how allowing a further massive expansion of aviation could be compatible with the SNP’s position on climate change.”
Friends of the Earth Scotland were not the only group campaigning in the run up to the vote. The Campaign against Climate Change also organised people to lobby their MPs across Britain, while Vote No Heathrow organised direct action including a die-in in Parliament shortly before the vote.
But for RedGreenLabour supporters there was an inexcusable lack of action from SERA, which badges itself as Labour’s environment campaign. As soon as it was clear in early June that there would be a parliamentary vote before recess, many of us started lobbying SERA for a statement – as well as taking action ourselves. We were assured it would happen, that it wasn’t controversial but had to be agreed by the Executive… We were not told why a draft statement launching a campaign couldn’t be agreed by email or a meeting convened by Skype.
The statement eventually appeared on June 21 – the day after the Labour Party’s own statement! Even worse it wasn’t e-mailed out to SERA members, there was no appeal to lobby MPs. So while the content is OK, it was irrelevant as an organising tool. SERA did send out a mail to members on June 28th expressing disappointment about both Heathrow and Swansea Bay – better late than never I suppose – but there was no call on members to do anything. And some RGL supporters have been told that SERA won’t participate in any direct action – apparently that’s not our role.
Well I don’t agree. I’m with John McDonnell. This is an emblematic battle against climate change. It’s a key campaign to show that the Labour Party is really committed to reducing the use of fossil fuels and preserving jobs through a Just transition. That means direct action as well as meetings and lobbying and I think RedGreenLabour, together with many CLPs, trade unionists and climate activists are ready to play a part in that. It’s true that This may be a long hot summer!