openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Keir Starmer blanked me at Labour conference, but we can’t ignore the climate crisis

The Labour leader should step aside if he can’t deliver on climate action, says a young Green New Deal campaigner

Emma de Saram
29 September 2021, 11.04am
The campaign group Green New Deal Rising have called for Labour to back £85bn of infrastructure investment to create green jobs.
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Did you see the video of the young Labour member ignored by Keir Starmer this weekend as he walked down Brighton pier? That was me.

On Sunday, I went to the Labour Party conference to ask Labour MPs if they would support a Green New Deal, a series of policies aimed at tackling the climate crisis. A few weeks ago, I tried to talk to Boris Johnson about the climate crisis while he was on his way to a Conservative Party fundraiser, but I was blocked by the police. Surely, I thought, the Labour leader would do better and take the opportunity to engage with a member of his party? 

But no, for the minute that I walked beside him, politely asking him to acknowledge me, he didn’t even look me in the eye. It really was something else. 

In August, a landmark UN scientific report warned that the climate crisis is a “code red for humanity”. The crisis is not a future event, it is happening now. If flooding, wildfires and rapid species extinction won’t compel MPs to support action at the speed and scale required, then young people will be there to ask them: why? 

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My generation has grown up in an age of crisis. This is a time when it has felt hard to stay hopeful. We’ve grown up in a world at the tipping point of climate chaos and of spiralling social and economic inequality. ​​We’ve seen austerity rip apart our communities while we put up with low paid, zero-hours contracts. We’ve seen the pandemic make the gap between rich and poor get wider and we’ve seen how all of this is so much worse for people already struggling all over the world. A secure job, decent home and financial security are impossible for most of us.

Can I honestly go back to my little hometown in North Dorset and say, ‘Yes, Labour has our interests at heart’? 

The climate crisis is the biggest issue of my generation, but we know we can’t solve climate change without social justice. As Brazilian environmental activist Chico Mendes famously said, “environmentalism without class struggle is gardening.” My generation knows this. But we are mostly disillusioned with party politics. 

I enjoy activism. I’ve met amazing people who share my hopes and fears about the future, but also feel the responsibility to hold MPs to account. So we are organising, protesting, striking and challenging. Keir Starmer’s stonewalling is a fitting metaphor for Labour’s treatment of its young members, whose generation used to be at the core of its voters.

Increasingly, I feel my two identities as a Labour member and an activist are in opposition. Should I still be backing Labour when I’m doing social justice and community organising work? Can I honestly go back to my little hometown in North Dorset and say, “Yes, Labour has our interests at heart”? 

Despite this encounter with Keir, I did meet and hear from inspiring Labour MPs at the party’s conference. I see Zarah Sultana and Nadia Whittome as part of a new generation of politicians who are listening to young people and are prepared to take transformative action. Although most people on Twitter were supportive of me, I had several people telling me to give up hope in Labour and campaign for change through other means. But for me, it has to be both. 

Sitting around a bonfire on Brighton beach on Saturday evening, most of my friends said they have either cancelled their membership or are thinking about it. Some said they’ve become apolitical. But for me, challenging Keir Starmer is one of the most important things I could be doing. The Labour Party could lead a government that delivers the Green New Deal. It’s going to take a government-led effort to transition our economy away from fossil fuels and deliver millions of good green jobs in the process. 

All political leaders require powerful movements that force them to deliver. It is obvious that Labour needs to work on their vision and narrative, especially if it wants to connect with young people. So Keir, if you’re reading, let me tell you something: young people are worried about the climate and their futures. Labour can be the party showing young people an alternative. Step up to the challenge or step aside.

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