Climate change: Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and Green voters
by Ian Sinclair
12 July 2017
There is a tendency in the UK to look contemptuously upon the US political system. And nowhere are the deficiencies of the ‘shining city on a hill’ more glaring than its side-lining of climate change – “the missing issue” of the 2016 US presidential campaign, reported the Guardian. According to the US writer Bryan Farrell, the topic was discussed for just 82 seconds during the 2016 televised presidential debates, which was actually an improvement on the 2012 debates, when it wasn’t mentioned at all.
Tragically, this omission was mirrored in the UK’s recent General Election. “The issue of #climatechange was completely marginalised during the #GE2017 media coverage”, Loughborough University’s Centre for Research in Communication and Culture tweeted about their election analysis. This absence, the media watchdog Media Lens noted, is “the great insanity of our time”. Why? Because climate change is arguably the most serious threat the world faces today. In January 2017 writer Andrew Simms surveyed over a dozen leading climate scientists and analysts and found none of them thought global temperatures would stay below 2°C – the figure world leaders agree we cannot exceed if we wish to stop dangerous climate change. Last year, top climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson told the Morning Star the pledges made by nations at the 2015 Paris climate summit would likely lead to a 3-4°C rise in global temperatures. Frighteningly he also told the author George Marshall that it’s hard to find any scientist who considers four degrees “as anything other than catastrophic for both human society and ecosystems.”
Surveying the environmental policies of the main parties just before 8 June, Friends of the Earth scored the Green Party top with 46 points, followed by Labour on 34, the Liberal Democrats on 32 and the Conservatives trailing last with a poor 11.
The environment and climate change did not play a significant role in the Labour Party’s hugely successful election campaign. And though Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn himself rarely mentioned the topic on the campaign trail, the manifesto was a pleasant surprise to many. “I’ve been really encouraged by Corbyn’s commitment to safeguarding our environment”, Nancy Strang, the Women’s Officer in Brent Central Labour, tells me. “The 2017 manifesto pledges to increase renewable energy production and investment, to tackle our air quality with a Clean Air Act, to protect Britain’s wildlife, and to ban fracking are all huge steps in the right direction… these pledges go beyond those in any previous Labour Party manifesto that I remember.”
The Green Party’s Dr Rupert Read agrees. “Corbyn’s Labour have some good environmental policies”, he tells me. “For example, their new-found opposition to fracking is much to be welcomed.”
However, he highlights a “fundamental problem” with Labour’s manifesto. “It is their unreconstructed insistence on ‘faster economic growth’”, Read, Chair of Green House thinktank, argues. “Faster economic growth means faster environmental destruction. It’s that simple. Net ‘green growth’ across the economy is a fantasy, nothing more; and in any case, that isn’t even what Labour’s manifesto promises. It speaks of an industrial strategy for growth across all sectors of the economy (i.e. ‘grey’/’brown’ as well as ‘green’).” He goes on to note “Labour is committed to a whole raft of de facto anti-environmental policies”, including a road-building programme, High Speed 2, the expansion of Heathrow, and Trident renewal.
“Whilst I may have been tempted to join the Green Party had Labour party members chosen a different leader, I genuinely believe that under Corbyn Labour will make meaningful steps towards tackling climate change in ways another leadership team may not have”, Strang notes. “Ultimately, I have to be pragmatic and make a decision based on which party is most likely to gain power and have a realistic chance of being able to implement their environmental policies.”
Strang’s reasoning has resonated widely, with many Green Party supporters switching their allegiance to Corbyn’s Labour Party – according to the polling organisation YouGov Labour managed to attract 59 percent of 2015 Green voters at the General Election.
Speaking to the Morning Star last month, the former Green council candidate turned Labour supporter Adam Van Coevorden concurred with Strang’s analysis. “Labour’s success is needed if we’re going to implement policies to protect the environment because at the moment big business has the whip hand, and as long as it does, nothing is going to change”, he noted. This echoes Canadian environmentalist Naomi Klein’s argument in her seminal 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate – that stopping the worst effects of global warming will involve massively degrading corporate power and “challenging the fundamental logic of deregulated capitalism”.
“Corporate power has undoubtedly been a big part of the erosion of our environment”, Read agrees. “Yet despite this we should not forget that some of the biggest ecological catastrophes that our planet has witnessed have come at the hands of big government initiatives – I am thinking particularly of the Soviet Union and China’s huge mining, deforestation and infrastructure projects, or even Venezuela’s state-run oil companies.” The crucial point for Read is “to challenge the logic of infinitely expanding production.”
Whether Corbyn’s Labour Party will begin to critically engage with the ideology of economic growth is an open question. Read is doubtful. “Environmental sustainability will never get a proper hearing from the Labour Party because it is at fundamental odds with Labour’s underlying philosophy”, he argues. “The Labour Party is built upon the principle of increasing production and sharing the proceeds (relatively) equitably among the wider society.”
However, one hopeful opportunity may be the Labour leadership’s attempts to increase democracy within the structures of the party – one way new and old environmentally aware-Labour supporters could decisively influence Labour Party policy. At the same time it is clear external political pressure from the Green Party – “they have led where others were not so bold”, says Van Coevorden – also has an essential role to play in pushing Corbyn’s Labour in the right direction on green issues. It should also be noted that Corbyn personally opposes some of the environmentally damaging policies the broader Labour Party currently supports, such as Heathrow expansion and Trident renewal. So, arguably, increased backing for the Labour leader and side-lining his neoliberal opponents within the party will likely improve Labour’s environmental policies.