The Labour Party Can’t Retreat From Its Vision of Change

Labour must outline its democratic-socialist vision of an economy that works for people and planet — before the Tories monopolize the narrative.

A protest for a Green New Deal. (Labour for a Green New Deal / Facebook)

The UK is facing multiple, overlapping crises of public health, unemployment, inequality, and climate breakdown. As the government trails its response, Labour has set out its four tests to hold them to account. Shadow Cabinet members and the public recognize that we need nothing short of transformative policies for a renewed society. Yet Labour risks letting the Tories get away with a return to the old exploitative economy, washed with a veneer of green.

The public appetite for change is high, with recent polling revealing that nearly 60 percent of the public want to see changes to how the economy is run. People want to keep the clean air and calm streets of lockdown — and they want state investment to provide good, sustainable jobs for those left out of work. Accordingly, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has duly attempted to co-opt the “Green Industrial Revolution” framing that Labour campaigned with in the 2019 general election.

The government has promised “green jobs” and new infrastructure spending — but there’s very little green and nothing revolutionary about Sunak’s proposals. His will be a program of modest spending in a few headline-grabbing projects while seeking to recover the status quo pre-pandemic economy, focusing on profitability for capital while abandoning working people and the climate. The fact that one of the first measures announced by the government this week was a plan to spend £100m on carbon-intensive road infrastructure says it all.

While the Tories begin to show their true colors, Ed Miliband has recently overseen a consultation on Labour’s green recovery plan, calling this our 1945 moment and proposing a “zero-carbon army” in response to the unemployment crisis. In a consultation event Miliband cohosted with Labour for a Green New Deal, he restated Labour’s commitment to the ambition of the 2019 manifesto, including the target to achieve the substantial majority of emissions reductions by 2030.

Labour now has a prime opportunity to articulate this popular ambition by laying out plans for a green recovery which stands up to the scale and scope of these crises. The details of Miliband’s green recovery proposals are yet to be published, but we do know Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds’s four tests for economic recovery: creating, supporting, and protecting jobs; producing a bounce-back effect across the country; every project must be carbon neutral or carbon-reducing; and a commitment to not increase taxes or cut support for low- and middle-income people.

These tests signal that Labour understands how these crises intersect and the risk posed by the Tories’ plans. But they fall woefully short of the ambition called for by the public or the transformations needed to secure justice in the face of these crises.

Ed Miliband has said he recognizes the scale of the existential threat posed by climate breakdown, yet Labour is only asking ministers not to make things worse — instead of demanding the investment necessary to meet our international obligations. Rather than setting weak tests for the government, Labour must draw four key dividing lines between a recovery for capital and a recovery for people and the planet.

First, Labour needs to prioritize expanding democratic public ownership throughout the economy. The dominance of private capital and the profit-driven market has been the key factor in reproducing the climate crisis. Big polluters are supported by governments to continue extracting and burning fossil fuels because of their short-term profitability.

The great immediate costs of decarbonizing major sectors like industry, transport, housing, and technology have locked us into decades of intensifying climate chaos. To transition the entire economy in the face of runaway climate change, we need to strip away the profit motive and democratically run the economy for people and the planet.

The same story is true of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tory government delayed lockdown in the vain hope of rescuing some profitability for capital, killing many thousands and elongating the crisis in the process. The profits of sectors like retail and elite sport have been prioritized ahead of public health and a just recovery.

Emissions-intensive sectors like aviation and oil are facing existential crises out of the pandemic. Rather than writing blank checks to underwrite their profitability, as Donald Trump has done for US airlines, governments should be using this opportunity to take public stakes in struggling companies, mandate rapid decarbonization, and guarantee a just transition for workers.

Second, Labour should promote a program of green jobs that are well-paid, unionized, and in the public sector. Labour’s “jobs, jobs, jobs” slogan indicates a commitment to prioritizing the looming employment crisis, but we can’t be satisfied with just any jobs. The Tories would like any green jobs program to act as a subsidy for capital, using punitive measures to funnel cheap surplus labour into companies with superficial green credentials.

We should understand “green jobs” expansively to cover any low-carbon work, including health and social care, education and emergency services, as well as in clean energy, retrofitting, environmental restoration, and green manufacturing. Private companies have consistently failed to deliver in these areas. That’s why new public companies and expanded public services should be the source of these green jobs, to accelerate the recovery and climate transition through democratic planning.

Central to Labour for a Green New Deal’s proposals has been that green jobs are necessarily unionized, to realign the balance of power between capital and labour. A recovery and transition to green jobs cannot be used by capital to further undermine workers’ rights and collective power. There will be many industrial fights in the months and years to come. Labour needs to support unions to be as strong and confident as possible in embracing them.

Third, Labour should push sweeping measures to green and level up the economy through state investment. Though the government continues to squeeze local authorities to the breaking point, austerity ideology has been obliterated with major spending on the furlough scheme.

While government spending is popular and on the agenda, there’s no better time to insulate every home in the country, roll out free, full-fiber broadband, and expand clean public transport to connect rural communities and reduce reliance on private cars. Labour has shovel-ready policies for each of these. In turn, they require significant investment, but will be the source of many thousands of green jobs while adapting our society to a socially distanced world and tackling inequality and emissions.

Fourth, Labour should be advocating for a new set of universal rights post-pandemic. We cannot return to an exploitative status quo where energy firms chase the unpaid bills of those in fuel poverty and landlords are allowed to evict the most vulnerable. Access to broadband, warm homes, water, energy, green transport, and food are all basic human needs. They should be guaranteed as basic human rights, provided by the state as universal basic services.

Despite its hollowing out by four decades of neoliberalism, the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the extraordinary power of the state to intervene in the economy for the public good, from the furlough scheme to housing the homeless. Now is the time to double down on this level of investment and intervention, not retreat.

If we don’t use this moment to instigate crucial economic transformations, our recovery from the pandemic will be stunted and any chances of a just climate transition imperiled. Now is not the time for Labour to “test” the government’s inevitably inadequate recovery plans. Labour must show leadership by demanding the far-reaching transformation our society wants and so urgently needs.