by Dr Patrick O’Sullivan, Coordinator, Energy and Environment, SE Cornwall Labour Party
What would a distinctive Labour environmental policy look like? Would it resemble those of the Greens or the Lib Dems? Or would it involve a coherent, carefully -considered, positive economic strategy? (Note 1) Obviously the answer is the second, but what is the detail behind that statement?
Many people who have joined Labour since Jeremy Corbyn was elected our leader – or who joined specifically in order to elect him! – are possibly somewhat greener than ‘traditional’ Labour supporters (whoever they may be). Traditionally, some Labour unions have been wary of certain green policies, which they see as threatening jobs, and long ago, at the very meeting which established SERA (the Socialist Environment and Resources Association), the great Raymond Williams explained why, historically (and rightly!), Labour’s overwhelming, mid-twentieth century policy preoccupation was eradicating poverty, rather than ‘ecological socialism’. Or as John Maynard Keynes put it:
For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not.
But as Anna Gillett recently said to me, a truly ‘red-green’ environmental policy must begin with social justice. This idea follows from a key principle not always acknowledged by the modern green movement, especially in its early days:
That the same forces which oppress human beings also oppress nature
Or, as the history of neo-liberal, ‘free market’, globalised capitalism over the past forty years has shown, increased inequality of income and increased environmental degradation go hand-in-hand.
As Extinction Rebellion state, since 1950 global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have increased by a factor of x 6. But over the first part of that period (1950-1980), under the post-1945, ‘Bretton Woods’ economic consensus, global inequality, as measured by the well-known GINI index, was falling. However, since 1980, when US President Ronald Reagan, a major champion of the ‘free’ market was elected, GHG emissions have almost doubled, from ca 21 Gt to ca 36 Gt year, while over the same period, the global income share of the top 10% of richest people (while remaining flat in some parts of the world – Africa, Brazil, the Middle East) has, in the richest nations, increased from around ca 30% of national income to ca 45%.
As we know, over this same period, those nations which were industrialised earliest, during the19th and early 20th centuries, became deindustrialised, and the skilled manufacturing jobs they once depended on exported, mainly to the Far East. With founding of the WTO (1995), there began a move to globalise almost all economic activity, so that today, the ‘old’ industrialised nations of Europe and North America find themselves with ‘rust-belts’ occupying their old manufacturing regions, a de-skilled former industrial working class relying on poorly-paid, insecure work, often on zero-hours contracts in the ‘gig’ economy, and a service sector which, in the case of the UK, occupies approaching 80% of GNP. Meanwhile, our town centres are ‘hollowed out’ as big tech companies, (some of whom have a somewhat cavalier attitude to paying taxes to say the least), replace online the shops where goods and services were once locally available.
Much of our food (40%, but with a “huge” deficit in fresh fruit and vegetables) is now grown or produced abroad, with even cut flowers being imported by air from the East African Rift Valley. Many of our current worries about a ‘No Deal’ Brexit stem from need to ensure that the stream of heavy lorries which brings fresh food and other goods across the Channel or through the Tunnel, is not slowed or worse, brought to a halt. Meanwhile, road transport contributes ca 20% of all Europe’s GHG emissions, of which 27% in turn is produced by heavy-duty vehicles. And ca 78% of GHG emissions from all transport in Europe come from road transport.
In other words, in both economic, social and environmental terms, almost everything we have done on the policy front since ca 1980 – at least in terms of developing a society which is both socially and ecological sustainable – has been wrong! In outline, a truly ‘red-green’ environmental policy would need to reverse the detrimental effects of Thatcherism, Reaganomics, globalisation and austerity, while seeking to build, in completely new ways, on the core values of Britain’s post-war social-democratic consensus. In this sense, such a policy would not represent a return to the past, but a move forward in a completely new direction.
Such proposals involve major changes to the way as a society we now conduct our lives, but as the children currently marching on our streets remind us, there is an urgent need on our part to influence some very large-scale geophysical processes, before our global climate system shifts completely beyond our capacity to do so. Fortunately two recent consultation documents produced as part of Labour’s 2019 National Policy Forum contain important ideas as to how we could begin to work towards such goals.
One of these, Local Economic Development, sets out arguments for reversing years of economic neglect under the very policies outlined above, with a suite of measures designed to turn the UK economy around on a local level, for example via Community Wealth Building: using local resources to regenerate local economies cooperatively. Fortunately we do not need to wait for election of a Labour government to begin this process: whereas we have seen that Tory ‘outsourcing’ of jobs and services leads to loss of accountability, lower service quality, and deterioration of terms and conditions for workers and for users, an alternative policy of ‘Insourcing’ – bringing jobs and procurement by local authorities back ‘in house’ along the lines of the much-discussed CLES Preston model – will give local businesses and local communities a bigger share and stake in the local economy, creating good local jobs, and providing new opportunities for local suppliers, thus expanding local demand (and Real Living wages).
As a result of austerity, local authorities often lack capacity to deliver a desirable mix of activities, Therefore, a complementary document, Democratic Public Ownership, explores ways of putting people in more control of their working lives, and delivering public services to transform the lives of all; a process described as a chance for the ‘biggest transfer of economic power the UK has ever seen’. This will involve giving people a direct say in decisions about working hours, wages, investment, new technology, and health and safety, all of which has the potential to make people both more fulfilled and more secure in their lives, while also empowering them to address – on a local basis – some of our most pressing global issues, including automation of jobs, and climate change.
Such ‘Economic Democracy’ does not imply a return – as the Tories will no doubt maintain – to the highly centralised, bureaucratic, nationalised industries of the past (which in fact now few people actually remember!). Instead, as indicated in the Party’s own earlier report Alternative Models of Ownership, Democratic Public Ownership also identifies its own key models which could be used to develop such policies, including the long-established (1956) cooperative at Mondragon in the Basque region of Northern Spain, and the celebrated Lucas Aerospace Plan to modernise old industries ‘from the root up’ originally put forward in 1974 (see Note 2).
How would such a policy affect Cornwall? These ideas are still being worked out, but here are a few suggestions, all of which are consistent with Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey’s plan to maximise the benefits of a ‘zero-carbon’ future by creating thousands of well-paid, unionised ‘green new deal’ jobs across the UK announced in February (see Note 3), and with ideas set out in the two new policy documents mentioned earlier.
The key change seems to me to be the switch from national or even global control and provision of goods and services to local production of as much food, as many goods, and certainly as much local provision of as many services as possible – as stated in Democratic Public Ownership, not just provision but control. Clearly this may involve a long transitional process, but what we are seeking to alleviate is forty years of going in the wrong direction, and local authorities will need to be allocated much more cash, and much more political clout even to embark upon it. But following the Preston model, which has been running for six years, the idea behind local procurement of goods and services is to generate as much local demand, and as much local employment, of as many skilled and meaningful jobs as practically feasible, at any given time.
Such a switch should then begin to revive local town centres, particularly if rating charges were to be reformed to reflect the relative size and economic power of local, regional and national concerns. All of these measures should contribute to a reduction in the distance travelled of many goods, thus helping reduce GHG emissions from transport, and give local communities some measure of control over the quality of products in the local economy, thus addressing health issues, and those surrounding the life-cycle of materials in the economy, from extraction to ‘disposal’.
If we are to revive local economies and create increased local employment, however, and reduce GHG emissions from Transport, we must then provide properly usable, cheap (free?) public transport so that people can both get back and forth to work, and into the newly revived centres. Taking back public transport back into local public ownership is therefore another essential measure.
According to Cornwall Council’s Strategic Energy Action Plan, the other main source of GHG emissions in the county (greater than those from transport) is heating of commercial and residential buildings, so that another essential component of any ‘red-green’ policy for the county would be a comprehensive programme of home and other dwelling insulation of the precisely the kind called for in Labour’s 2018 Environment Policy The Green Transformation, again under local democratic control and not outsourced. A bonus of such a programme would be that it involves creation of demand for just the kind of skilled and semi-skilled work that globalisation exported to other countries.
And if we are to reduce and eventually phase out our use of fossil fuels, we would need to revive our commitment to installing as much renewable energy generation as needed to render the county self-reliant. However, it would surely be better if the next round of SPVs and turbines and other devices, on or offshore, are installed under meaningful local democratic control and not in a market-driven free-for-all as took place earlier this decade. Surely no major buildings, public or commercial, should be given planning permission without maximising roof space for solar energy generation? And no more ‘solar farms’ should be approved which are located on farmland, which should be used to produce food.
Over the past year or so, various Cornwall Labour CLPs have addressed the issue of a fairer allocation of quotas to small, inshore, coastal fishing boats. In all our discussions so far, while we have demonstrated that the real problem with coastal fishing is the way successive UK governments have sold off quotas to the highest bidder, thus favouring large, transnational corporations, there has so far been little mention of alternative models of management as a means of ensuring fairer access to resources of our local waters. But one implication of the ideas set out in Democratic Public Ownership is that in future we could reserve at least some access to fishing stocks, however allocated, to boats and inshore fishing concerns which adopt more cooperative types of management strategy.
- I was greatly helped in preparation of this post by numerous discussions with our colleague Lesley Carty, including reading a previous text by her on a similar topic.
- Democratic Public Ownership also points out that local autonomy should not be at the expense of a broader commitment to commonly agreed goals and principles at national and international levels. There will also still be a requirement for higher level strategic planning and integration of public services, particularly with regard to infrastructure and grid networks in areas as diverse as transport, energy, water, and healthcare.
- They also all follow from the idea that a truly ‘red-green’ environmental policy begins not with the needs of nature, and imposing limits on human activity (which can lead to greater inequality), but by addressing those forces in human society which cause adverse social and environmental changes, and seeking to mitigate both. We also need to bear in mind that climate change is not the only pressing environmental problem confronting us, and that destruction of habitat, both marine and on land, and loss of key indicator species (e.g. bees and other insects), are also signs that we are approaching the limits of our planet’s ability to support us.