A Green New Deal is about more than reducing our carbon footprint

Only a wholesale transformation of our economy can overcome the multiple crises we face.

Adrienne Buller
18 September 2019, 1.32pm
Image: SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images

Next week at the Labour Party’s annual conference in Brighton, delegates from around the country will have the chance to call on the party to undertake an unprecedented programme of investment in technology, infrastructure and people, in the form of a Green New Deal for the UK.

If delegates elect to advance the motion – the first step to a Green New Deal becoming official Labour Party policy – they will be voting for far more than a set of policies aimed at reducing the UK’s carbon footprint. They will be voting for one of the most ambitious and far reaching economic transformations this country has ever seen.

The innovation of the Green New Deal platform is its recognition that the crises we face – of climate change, economic inequality, housing, biodiversity, and international and intergenerational inequity – are not isolated issues. They are in fact the product of a broken economic system that invariably and necessarily prioritises profit over people and planet. And as the range of participants at our rally – which includes activists, trade unionists, school strikers, party membership and parliamentary candidates – demonstrates, what is needed is not a ‘readjustment’, but a wholesale transformation of the structure and principles of our economy that serves the interests of the many, including workers and future generations.

That’s why when it came time to set out our vision for what a Green New Deal might look like for the UK, we placed the expansion of democratic ownership and the guaranteeing of fundamental rights through the provision of universal basic services (UBS) as two cornerstones of the platform, right alongside demands for a commitment to rapidly phase out fossil fuels and a target of total decarbonisation by 2030.

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But what do these demands for UBS and democratic ownership really mean? And why do we need them as part of a Green New Deal for the UK?

The demand for democratic ownership set out in our Green New Deal reflects an understanding that many of the crises we face today, from housing to failing public services to climate change, are directly linked to prevailing models of private ownership that place value extraction, speculation and profit maximisation over the needs of the many. It is these models that have enabled the mass privatisation of public goods and services as well as the reckless exploitation of the natural world.

A Green New Deal therefore requires us to imagine a more public, community-led form of ownership, which prioritises wellbeing, shared rather than private wealth, and the stewardship of public resources and commons.

Examples of what such models of ownership might look like already exist. At the municipal level, the ‘Preston Model’ put forward by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies has been hugely successful, driving greater equality and sustainability in the formerly struggling Preston by harnessing the power of ‘anchor’ institutions; utililising the benefits of public land, property ownership and pension funds for local economies; and developing ‘circular’ ownership models which retain wealth in the community.

At the national level, Labour has set out a clear vision for nationalising key industries such as water, energy and rail travel which not only comprise basic needs for living and participating in society, but are also critical sectors at the intersection of combating inequality and climate breakdown.

These overlapping, alternative models of ownership (and others like them) will be key to unlocking the potential of a Green New Deal. By increasing productivity and investment and shifting emphasis from short-term profits to long-term viability, these models encourage the long-term thinking we need to build a truly sustainable economy, in addition to remedying decades of decline in public services while increasing democratic accountability.

The idea of universal basic services goes hand in hand with democratic ownership. It is founded on the understanding that everyone – regardless of ability to pay or immigration status – should have their basic needs met. In practice, this commitment may include (but is not limited to) the universal provision of education, health and social care, energy, water, housing and transport.

Combined with increased democratic ownership, universal basic services can become a powerful tool to drive decarbonisation, enabling public sector procurement to become a key lever for state intervention in the economy, and ensuring a rapid and just energy transition by shifting aggregate demand towards sustainable industries and encouraging investment in zero carbon infrastructure and services. Universal basic services would also provide vital support for workers, for instance through the establishment of a National Education Service to provide free lifelong education and retraining.

A Green New Deal which places democratic ownership and universal basic services at its heart is more than just a plan for decarbonising our economy. It offers an alternative to our current system of political, economic and ecological crises. It is the blueprint for a prosperous, socialist, zero-carbon society which serves the many rather than the few. And, crucially, it is within our grasp.

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