Come hell or high water. Flickr/ Akuppa John Wigham. Some rights reserved.
For many years, those in Britain arguing that governments should make climate disruption a top priority have found themselves ignored or marginalised. Now, there are hopeful signs that the opposition Labour Party is taking the matter seriously – and may become able to put that concern into practice.
There is clear evidence of the need for comprehensive action. In October, the IPPC science committee delivered a stark report with the message that a fundamental shift in decarbonisation policies was required if catastrophic climate disruption was to be avoided. Truly radical initiatives had to come by 2030. The report attracted widespread attention and probably helped avert outright failure at December's climate summit in Katowice. But the modest outcome of the COP24 meeting is no guarantee that such change will follow, however much it is needed (see "Climate action, a new frontier", 17 December 2018).
This is the context in which a shift in the political mood in Britain may prove significant. In the middle of current turmoil over Brexit, and even through the normally quiescent holiday period around Christmas and the new year, emerging signs hint at a genuine stirring in the Labour Party that could make the climate issue outrank even the Brexit mess, whatever its outcome.
Over a long period, the Green Party's Caroline Lucas, its sole member of parliament in the House of Commons, has been a strong if often lone voice in parliament in advocating a serious overhaul of climate policy. Some other MPs have been supportive: Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party had a much stronger manifesto in the 2017 general election than had previously been the case, and Corbyn himself makes frequent reference to the issue. But these scattered efforts pressing for an accelerated new direction on climate – lacking sufficent numbers, enthusiasm, and momentum – have been insuffient to make a real difference.
What is really interesting just now is that right in the middle of the Brexit chaos, Labour’s shadow treasury and business teams have begun promoting the issue with fresh and unprecedented intensity. On 20 December, my wife Claire and I went with some friends to hear the shadow chancellor John McDonnell speak at Shipley, a Conservative-held marginal constituency near Bradford. His speech, enthusiastically received, included an uncompromising commitment to radical decarbonisation with the necessary investment and skill-planning to do it.
Moreover, he was talking not just about renewables and reform of the energy sector but also about major investment in “warm home” initiatives which would also have an effect on fuel poverty. The promotion of public transport and a push for non-carbon-emitting transport systems also featured strongly.
Four days later, Labour’s shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey said that the UK’s “entire society and entire economy” needed to be refocused to meet the looming challenge of ecological breakdown. She argued that the crisis was also “an opportunity to bring well-paid, highly skilled jobs and economic regeneration to some of the most marginalised communities in the country.”
A week later it was the turn of Clive Lewis, one of McDonnell’s shadow treasury team, to make a similar case “If you want your children and grandchildren to avoid food shortages, to avoid power shortages, to avoid biological degradation, biodiversity loss – if you actually want a planet that’s inhabitable – then we need to make some choices together, now, and some of them are about quite dramatic changes to how we live”.
Interestingly, Lewis went on to outline Labour’s likely stance in the event of a snap general election being called. This would have to be a step up from 2017, when Labour performed very strongly to deprive Theresa May's Conservatives of the easy victory they and most of the media had confidently predicted: “The 2017 manifesto gave a lot of people a kind of warm, cuddly glow, and it was a great reset of our values and where we are, but it was a base on which to build. The next manifesto needs to be a radical manifesto, which builds on the reset, and is 21st-century socialism in action. There’s a hunger for that.”
Listen to the lion
The key question, though, is whether this kind of talk really means very much. Another general election in the near future, or at least before the scheduled date of 2022, is possible. Whenever it comes, Labour cannot yet be certain that it will win. But there are three reasons why these recent pronouncements should be taken seriously.
First, radical change now appears to be deeply embedded in the economic and business thinking of Britain’s second biggest political party, and one with a membership of over half a million. That process, developing over the three years since Corbyn was elected Labour leader, is now clearly out in the open. Moreover, this is coming both from the shadow environment personnel and from the heart of the group developing some quite impressive new economic approaches (see "No way to run the world", 7 November 2018).
Second, this represents a true departure, which in its core elements could be supported by the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties, and the Liberal Democrats, while Caroline Lucas would rightly be calling for even greater focus. It is still early days, a change of attitude is on course among a growing part of Britain's political scene.
Third, it can't be emphasised enough that climate disruption will affect everybody. In this light, perhaps Brexit is rather less significant than it may appear. After all, it involves a country representing less than 1% of the world’s population possibly moving away from an economic union representing about 8% of the world’s population.
Put all this together, and views may be evolving beneath the surface that the metropolitan media is not aware of or even looking for. During that 2017 election campaign, a couple of columns in this series pointed to such an undercurrent. They suggested that Corbyn was striking a much more positive note than was reported by the metro-media, and that the assumption of an impending Conservative landslide at the polls might be plain wrong (see "The Corbyn crowd, and its message", 18 May 2017).
And so it turned out – something really was happening underneath. For three years, not just in the febrile atmosphere of an election, Corbyn has been travelling the country addressing people in mainly marginal constituencies. This week, on 10 December, he spoke in the Morley and Outwood constituency in west Yorkshire, but if you were to go to the venue you would not get near it: all seats were booked long ago (see "The Corbyn crowd, and its signal", 2 September 2016).
This is happening repeatedly, and with other Labour figures as well as Corbyn. I mentioned going to hear John McDonnell in Shipley. This was on a Thursday afternoon at 4pm just five days before Christmas, at the height of the holiday rush, yet 400 people turned up and McDonnell got a standing ovation before he even started speaking.
I don’t want to make too much of it and – unlike that pre-election column – I might this time be wrong. But all the focus on Brexit is allowing establishment channels once more to miss the deeper story. If there is an election in the next few months, do not be too surprised if Jeremy Corbyn ends up not just in Downing Street but leading a party with an overall majority in parliament.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell joins campaigners calling for ambitious action to tackle climate change.Dominic Lipinski/Press Association. All rights reserved.