Labour and the Green New Deal

Climate change is the number one issue at this year's Labour conference. More important than Brexit, motions for a Green New Deal (GND) outnumbered motions on every other subject. When the causes and effects of climate breakdown are escalating, this reflects a proper sense of priorities. The call for a GND is also backed by Corbyn and several shadow cabinet ministers. It should get through conference easily. As of writing, it isn't. 

Why not? Because some unions, particularly the GMB, oppose it. To get a motion easily through conference, you need union delegates, who make up half of all delegates. They mostly vote in a disciplined way. If you want them to vote for it, you need their support during compositing for an agreed form of words. And while Labour for a Green New Deal ultimately optimistic about the prospects of reconciling organised labour with climate change mitigation, they were always going to have difficulty here. There is another round of compositing going on tonight, but if last night's progress is any guide, the GMB will stonewall until they get a greatly watered down motion. And if it goes very badly, Labour will end up with a nominally less radical policy than the Liberal Democrats, despite the obvious commitment and consciousness of its membership.

If you take any major climate issue in UK politics over the last few years, the GMB has been firmly on the side of extractivism. When Labour announced a ban on fracking in 2016, they said it was 'madness', and raised the lurid prospect of Britain being energy dependent on 'headchopper' dictators. Along with Unite, the GMB led the union call for the expansion of Heathrow airport. And at the Labour Party conference, it has been opposing a Green New Deal motion because it rejects the call to oppose fracking, stop airport expansion and decarbonise by 2030. Frankly, if all that was stripped out of the motion, there wouldn't be much left. It would be a joke. The GMB knows this.

All of this should encourage scepticism whenever Tim Roache starts offering warm words to the Green New Deal and the climate strike. But, however narrow and politically conservative*, it is also materially understandable. (*The GMB's harder line is probably not unrelated to its backing for Owen Smith in the 2016 leadership election.) A section of the GMB membership has a specific dependence on fossil capital. It isn't the only or even main union to represent energy workers. But in a narrow sense they are defending their members' jobs. They do recognise the reality of climate change, but they don't want solutions commensurate with the scale of the crisis. And nor is this conservatism limited to one union. Most unions prefer to talk of a "balanced energy policy". 

This phrase, "balanced energy policy", is jargon that comes from the energy industry and the global institutions. It has been vaunted by everyone from George W Bush to Barack Obama. In practice, it means you keep extracting fossil fuels. Not just that, of course. It seeks to combine such traditional extractive practices with the development of more nuclear power plants, 'clean' coal, hydrogen gas, more renewables and carbon capture and storage. The upshot is that more of the stuff which we need to stay in the ground, is extracted and burned for energy. This is the basis on which the unions hope, and have longed hoped, to achieve a "just transition" which protects jobs.

The troubling thing is this. In principle, the language of a Green New Deal ought to be compatible with the aspirations of the trade unions. It is doing exactly what the "just transition" strategy apparently seeks: investing in green jobs, and clean energy, creating work in construction and transport, expanding whole new capitalist sectors with lots of 'blue collar' jobs. It seeks green growth, sustainability, albeit within the framework of a platform of economic justice. It isn't trying to abolish the wage-labour relation. It isn't, whatever the Daily Telegraph fantasises, a marxist programme for the overthrow of capitalism. Which suggests that, even within their own terms of reference, the GMB is being uniquely and particularly lumpen.

Such a limited vision represents a huge dilemma, not just for the Labour Party, or even the wider labour movement, but for all of us. The main interface between humans and their nature environment, is labour. The majority of carbon emissions, come from workplaces. Moreover, as the ecosocialist Laura Conti wrote, there is no way of solving the problems posed by the incredible complexity of the web of life, without democratic planning. It can't be left to markets. We have seen where that leads; where it must always lead. And nor can it be entrusted to some sort of climate leviathan. The plan must involve the whole of society as an active agent, Conti wrote, and above all it must involve those on the frontline, those who are most polluted, the most exposed to climate risks, to toxic and unsafe working conditions: the working-class. 

Yet, as Conti also noted, there was a paradox here. Because for labour environmentalism to gain sufficient roots, it needed an advanced industrial system with a concentrated, highly educated workforce, higher occupational levels, and political strength. It is not an accident that the heart of fossil capital, coal-mining, was also the source of a radically democratic, militant socialist culture in the labour movement. As Timothy O'Mitchell has pointed out, the very existence of fossil capital endowed its paid labour force with class powers that few other labour forces have enjoyed. And the irony is that the defeat of the miners, while it certainly reduced Britain's use of coal, also destroyed the sorts of class organisation that could conceivably have formed the basis of ecosocialist democracy. Over the last four decades of punctuated defeat and decline, unions could barely defend the jobs they had. That doesn't conduce to boldness in reimagining the global economy. So, with few exceptions, the organised labour movement has adopted the framework of governments and global institutions. It adopted the unavailing 'win-win' language of 'green growth' and 'sustainability', because that was the context in which their concerns were partially recognised and addressed. Within those terms, it has usually endorsed the opening of new extractive frontiers for the sake of 'jobs'.

The paradox to which Conti refers isn't going away. However, a Green New Deal could potentially modify that problem. It could, in generating new industrial systems, new public sectors, new union jobs, new high-skilled 'green collar' jobs, build up some of the class capacities for self-government that are needed. It could be part of a class-formative process, a pedagogic process. That's why these struggles are so vital.

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