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What Happened To Labour's Green New Deal?

Ed Miliband with Greta Thunberg in Parliament, April 2019 | PA Images

8 min read

At its 2019 conference, Labour passed a radical climate motion to the delight of party activists. A general election, leadership campaign and global pandemic later, is the energy for a Green New Deal still there?

A year ago on Thursday, the Labour party conference passed a motion that was hailed by the party’s eco-activists as a “breakthrough moment” and an “incredible victory”. 

The Momentum-backed Composite 17, better known as the Socialist Green New Deal, secured passage with the backing of a vast majority of delegates and six unions. 

“It solidified what we already knew was the change in consciousness, it gave authority to what we already knew…It hopefully changed the Labour party forever,” says Adam Williams, an activist in Greater Manchester.

However, 12 months after the Labour activists left Brighton, the world – and Labour – is in a radically different place. 

Now there are questions among activists over whether Keir Starmer will remain true to the pledge on which he was elected – and whether his relative hush on the issue of the environment is a communications strategy or a sign of a shift in policy.

The motion containing the Momentum-backed proposal – with provisions including nationalising public transport, and the Big Six energy companies, and a 2030 ambition for net-zero carbon emissions – was embraced by the then-leadership and was meant to form a key tenet of Labour’s 2019 general election campaign.

“We’re in a much-changed political context,” says Angus Satow, co-founder of the pressure group Labour for a Green New Deal. “The task for us now is to build on that 2019 manifesto.” 

Some activists are now eyeing Keir Starmer’s green credentials with trepidation. Although he committed to “putting the Green New Deal at the heart of everything we do” as part of his election campaign, the perceived lack of visible leadership on the green Covid recovery, in particular, is causing concern.

I feel like we’re not doing enough. I don’t really know what our policy positions are anymore

“I just haven’t heard a thing about it really,” says Jon Pepper, a Labour for a Green New Deal activist. “I don’t know if I’ve not been looking in the right places but the things that I’ve seen have lacked leadership with regard to actually being really ambitious about this…At the moment they seem to be playing [a] careful game to get certain people on side first before any policies are really aired.”

Robin Layfield, an activist from Stroud, agrees: “I feel like we’re not doing enough. I don’t really know what our policy positions are anymore. They’ve not been signposted or signalled. And I think we need to do more. I feel like, along with Rebecca Long-Bailey who obviously was one of the leaders of the Green New Deal motion, it’s been consigned to history with the previous administration.”

The amount the current silence on the Green New Deal is a communications strategy from the Labour leadership to distance themselves from Corbynism, rebuild the Labour brand and appear fiscally responsible, is up for debate amongst activists, Labour advisers and climate NGOs. There is some sympathy for the new leadership trying to establish themselves in the middle of a global pandemic. 

But such sympathy is not without its limits. “There might be a strategy there around what they perceive to be necessary in the current moment, what’s best for polling. But Keir Starmer was elected on several pledges, saying he’d maintain the radicalism of the Corbyn era, he’d maintain the Green New Deal. As the leader of a democratic socialist party it shouldn’t be optional for him to follow through on those things,” Satow warns.

“It is for the leadership to decide their own communications strategy and rhetoric. It is not for the leadership to decide whether or not to abide by democratically decided policy in the party, at conference in 2019, in Keir Starmer’s leadership election mandate, and in the Green Recovery Consultation since. We expect the leadership to follow through with that,” he adds.

Other activists are more positive.

Jake Sumner, co-chair of Sera, Labour’s environment campaign, and a former party adviser, says he has heard Starmer and shadow cabinet members express support for green policies on multiple calls throughout the pandemic, and is positive about the overall direction of the party.

“What’s happened, and been very noticeable over the last few years, is how much more joined up Labour’s policy is on the environment – how much more mainstream it is. It’s now weaved through every element of our policy programme,” Sumner explains.

Adam Williams agrees: “I’ve still got faith and I’m not here to call anyone out just yet. It all seems okay to me – it would be great to have more official declarations but there’s a lot going on at the moment. And it’s just our job to do the best we can to show how good the Green New Deal can be.”

Luke Myer, on the Labour for A Green New Deal leadership team and a Sera member, says the picture is “mixed”, but he takes heart from the fact that although the party leadership may have changed, the membership remains much the same. 

“It wasn’t the leadership who pushed for a Green New Deal last year it was the thousands of members who put in the motions through 128 CLPs. And I think that commitment is still there,” he explains

 Ed Miliband is a massive advocate. In many ways, Ed is our new Rebecca Long-Bailey

A positive for campaigners is the appointment of Ed Miliband, long term supporter of the Green New Deal, as shadow BEIS secretary.

“Ed Miliband is a massive advocate. In many ways, Ed Miliband is our new Rebecca Long-Bailey,” Williams explains. 

Barry Gardiner, former shadow climate change minister, believes that Miliband’s appointment was a clear indication from Starmer about the future of Labour’s Green New Deal. 

“It is at the heart of Labour policy, it must remain at the heart of Labour policy, because it’s about the future of a sustainable economy. It’s about the future of jobs in this country...So I think it was a very key message that Keir gave, when he put Ed into that position, that this had to be at the centre of our economic future and our industrial future.”

And Labour sources are quick to dismiss reports of tension between Starmer’s office and Miliband’s on Labour’s environmental messaging. 

Two weeks ago Miliband chaired the inaugural meeting of the shadow cabinet’s climate action sub-committee, with nine different shadow teams represented. Miliband and the Labour leadership are also currently considering responses to the Green Recovery consultation run with Labour members over the summer, with an “ambitious” report due in October. Labour for a Green New Deal say that statements in support of their proposals make up around two-thirds of all submissions. 

Indeed, for many activists, Covid has presented a key opportunity for Labour to again make the case for radical green social and economic policies across every policy area, with working conditions for key workers, job security, air quality, and the risks of zoonotic diseases at the top of the agenda due to the crisis.

Myer explains: “The pandemic is a really useful frame because it exposed the injustices in society…But it’s also showing how the government can step in and provide a safety net in an emergency and that we can experience this massive change socially and economically and it is possible to do.

“It should be clear that the climate crisis is an emergency on the same scale as, if not worse than, a pandemic,” he continues. 

Daniel Zeichner, the Labour MP for Cambridge and shadow food, farming and fishing minster, believes that Covid has moved attention away from the climate crisis for now. But when it comes to the building back message, he agrees that “there’s got to be a better approach and a much greener and environmentally focused approach”.

He adds: “I think Labour is going to be spending quite a lot of time over the next two or three years addressing those particular issues and I think if we can get that right, we’ll have a really positive policy offer that people can support next time and hopefully take a bit more centre stage at the next election”

Labour for a Green New Deal is also keen to build local support across the country – and to work with local authorities and communities to achieve change. The campaign is currently undergoing a restructure to better facilitate this, but some places have a head start.

In Greater Manchester the local group are working alongside other green activist groups to lobby for change with the Labour-held Manchester council – and have a dedicated comms team working on a podcast and articles in local media. Adam Williams, a local activist, thinks that the national Labour for a Green New Deal has leant the group more weight locally with other activists, local MPs and councillors.

“Manchester is Labour through and through, Labour council, it always has been, probably always will be, and so that has its own difficulties. But we are climate activists, first and foremost, we don’t really care about the colour of the rosette – if Manchester Labour Council is not up to scratch on climate issues, then we will call that out,” he says. 

“A Labour member saying that Labour policies are wrong is more powerful to the Labour party than someone outside.”

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