An Ever‑Paler Shade of Green: Starmer’s New ‘Green Pledges’

Assessing the state of the Labour Party’s ecological offer, Allan Todd asks how eco-socialists should respond to the paucity of electoral options.


“The era of global boiling has arrived!”

Across the world, July 2023 has seen many broken climate records and unprecedented ‘extreme weather’ events.  A joint statement released by the European Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) confirmed that the first three weeks of July have been the hottest three-week period ever recorded and even predicted that the month will be the hottest ever experienced by human civilisation:

Carlo Buontempo, the director of C3S, noted that:

“July’s record is unlikely to remain isolated this year,… seasonal forecasts indicate that over land-areas, temperatures are likely to be well above average,… for the time of year.”

Among the most catastrophic consequences of these record temperatures have been the wildfires in Canada – nearly double the previous record set in 1989 – that have blanketed the North American Northeast with toxic levels of smoke and ash. Meanwhile, large portions of Southern Europe, the Middle East, South Asia and the entire Southern US have experienced extreme floods and heat health alerts – with hundreds having already died from heat stroke in Italy, Spain, Algeria, China, Cyprus, Greece, and Mexico. Last year’s heatwave in Europe resulted in just under 62,000 deaths, with nearly 18,000 of these deaths occurring in Italy alone – but unlike floods, these deaths occur individually, away from TV cameras, in homes and hospitals.

In Phoenix, Arizona, heat records tumbled when, for an unprecedented 25 consecutive days, temperatures soared above 43C; Phoenix also broke the record for hottest overnight temperature by reaching 35C. Consequently, even Arizona’s iconic saguaro cacti were losing arms and, in some cases, falling over.

Even more worrying than these land temperatures has been a simultaneous marine heatwave. The surface temperatures of the North Atlantic Ocean – and the Mediterranean Sea – became 5C hotter than normal, with the water temperatures off the Florida coast reaching over 38C. While the extent of Antarctic Sea ice shrank to about 1m. below average. Warming oceans threaten critical coral systems – and the global plankton population – with disease and mass die-offs, threatening the base of the world’s current food chain. While the lack of Antarctic Sea ice also constantly increases the danger of rising ocean levels permanently flooding coastal areas where an estimated 3 billion people live.

All this promoted UN General Secretary, António Guterres, to say on 27 July that the era of global warming has ended and that:

“the era of global boiling has arrived. Climate change is here. It is terrifying. And it is just the beginning. It is still possible to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C [above pre-industrial levels], and avoid the very worst of climate change. But only with dramatic, immediate climate action.”

Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘Green New Deal’ for the 2019 general election was seen by many on the left and in the broader environmental movement – including Friends of the Earth – as the most ambitious green Climate-Crisis programme ever presented to the electorate. But almost immediately after being elected leader, Starmer watered down what had been offered in 2019. Nonetheless, in 2021, Starmer ‘promised’ to spend £28bn – each year – on green projects until 2030.

Moreover, at Labour’s 2022 Annual Conference, some other positive climate ‘commitments’ were made – with talk of making the UK a “green growth superpower.” In particular, there was a ‘promise’ to create a new state-owned company to be called GB Energy, which would expand renewable energy production – along with a ‘promise’ to fully decarbonise the National Grid by 2030 as regards electricity generation; and to de-carbonise the transport system. Sadly, there was no commitment to renationalise the energy companies – which have been pouring petrol on the ‘Cost of Living’ Crisis and the Climate and Ecological Crises via their greedy pursuit of mega-profits.

Yet, as the next general election gets nearer and nearer, Starmer has increasingly begun to ‘wobble’ on his green ‘pledges’ – which includes a promise to retrofit 19 million of the UK’s most ‘leaky’ homes by providing councils with £6bn a year for 10 years. A plan which, if implemented, would cut people’s energy bills and create almost 4m green jobs.  Yet, last month, it was also announced that Labour would not, after all, spend £28bn every year on Climate Crisis actions until 2030. Instead, the new ‘pledge’ is to have reached £28bn by 2030.

As well as back-tracking on Labour’s earlier ‘promise’, Rachel Reeves also said if any green spending commitments clash with her fiscal rules (including reducing debt as a percentage of GDP), the “rules would win every time.”

Not surprisingly, a ‘pledge’ of a ‘British Green Jobs’ bonus – made shortly after the backtracking on annual green spending – hasn’t inspired much confidence amongst climate activists. Those doubts have been increased by Starmer’s latest ‘wobble’ on ULEZ. And all this before Labour wins the next general election! On previous experience, the Labour Party tends to sound radical prior to an election and then quickly starts to row back on earlier promises should it win.

Ecosocialists and the next general election

The bottom line is that even with all this backtracking, watering-down and general ‘wobbling’ on green issues, a Labour government would still deliver better as regards the Climate and Ecological Crises than the Tories – or even another Tory-LibDem coalition.

But what’s needed to deal with those Climate and Ecological Crises is the same approach governments took in WW1 and WW2. Then, faced with the choice between victory or defeat, the state made massive inroads into the ‘private rights’ of laissez-faire capitalism – because the irrationality and inefficiencies of the ‘free market’ proved woefully inadequate to deliver what was needed to address the national emergency. In particular, the capitalist ‘right’ to put private property and private profit above all other considerations was subordinated to political priorities and social needs to combat the threat faced by one and all.

As the Climate and Ecological Crises get worse year by year, that is the kind of talk a real opposition party should be talking. In particular, Labour should be promising – now, and in no uncertain terms – that they will walk the walk from day one: rather like Roosevelt had his ‘First Hundred Days’ to confront the crisis of the Great Depression.

As the British journalist J. H. Hammond wrote in 1918 about the challenges facing the UK after WW1:

“A crisis so tremendous as this drives even the least reflective mind to question those conventions, [of the inviolability of private property and the institutions of capital accumulation]… it needs a great shock to awaken a society to some fundamental change of outlook.”

Thus, what Labour should be promising – in the face of these existential crises – is massive state interventions to control and direct what corporations can and cannot do. What an opposition party should most definitely not be doing is retreating in the face of mounting pushbacks from the very corporations and political parties who have, in the words of António Guterres, already pushed us into the era of global boiling! 

Nonetheless, a Labour victory would be a gain that the climate movement can – and must – build on. In the vast majority of seats Labour could win in 2025 – given that we don’t have any PR system – it’s an inescapable fact that the ‘greenest’ vote has to be one for the Labour candidate. One of the first priorities of climate activists must be to ensure that the new Labour government does not approve the Rosebank oilfield – or any other new oil, gas and coal projects. Again, as Guterres stated, “The fossil fuel industry is at the heart of the climate crisis. The problem is not simply fossil fuel emissions. It’s fossil fuels – period.”  

Young people are increasingly demanding ‘System Change’ to ensure they have a liveable future – and Starmer should remember that young voters almost delivered victory to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the 2017 general election. Starmer should keep this in mind, instead of going for the votes of reactionaries.

While Starmer and his ‘New Labour 2.0’ rowing back on green ‘pledges’ would clearly be hugely catastrophic from the Climate and Ecological Crises standpoint, it does not even make sense as an electoral strategy. According to a very recent ‘More in Common’ opinion poll, 50% of the general public still think governments have not done enough on green issues, while only 25% think enough has now been done. More importantly, only 12% think too much has been done. Thus jumping on the hard-right anti-green bandwagon of the 1% is not much of a vote-winner.

We are at a crucial turning point in human history; thus, we have to jettison the ‘old ways’ that have brought us to this juncture and are pushing us to the very of uncontrollable Climate Breakdown. Human life – and the life of all other Earthlings – can no longer be subordinated to the selfish and destructive demands of a minority to continue to increase their already massive private wealth. What’s needed is to demand much more – not to offer less and less. As Extinction Rebellion’s ‘Big One’ demanded in April this year, we must ‘Unite to Survive!’ – which will require us to really #TransformPolitics. It’s possible that the recent call to form a new radical-left – and explicitly ecosocialist – party may help push Labour in the right direction before the next general election and after.

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Allan Todd is a member of ACR’s Council and of Left Unity’s National Council, and an ecosocialist/environmental and anti-fascist activist. He is the author of Revolutions 1789-1917, Ecosocialism not Extinction, Trotsky: The Passionate Revolutionary, and Che Guevara: The Romantic Revolutionary

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