Starmer’s miserable betrayal—a gift to the crisis‑ridden Tories and a disaster for the planet

Alan Thornett analyses Keir Starmer's decision to scale back Labour's Green Prosperity Plan, arguing it betrays the planet and cripples Labour's ability to lead on climate change.

 

The first item on the early morning news of Thursday 8 February was that, according to the EU climate agency, the global average temperature was continuing to accelerate at a highly dangerous rate. For the first time, it exceeded the agreed maximum of 1.5°C above preindustrial levels every day for a whole year. Last month was also the hottest January ever recorded.

The second item—staggeringly—was that Starmer had just announced that he was ‘setting aside’ his pledge to invest £28bn every year over 10 years to enable his Green Prosperity Plan (GPP), which he had announced at the 2021 Labour Party conference when under pressure from the left and which he had defended as completely indispensable only two days before, would now be cut to £4.7bn a year—a fifth of the original—in what must be the mother of environmental U-turns.

The fact that this retreat had been long anticipated does not make it any less damaging. It is a massive missed opportunity and a major setback for decarbonisation in Britain, both now and under a future Labour government. It will confirm the UK as an international backslider on climate change rather than becoming a potential leader.

The £28 billion was crucial to the GPP. It was there to create the physical infrastructure that would drive the decarbonisation agenda forward and allow the government to drive the agenda. Starmer’s claim that almost everything that he had pledged in 2021 could now be achieved on a budget of £4.7 billion a year—including decarbonising the national grid—is as preposterous as it is dishonest.

His collapse was an ignominious capitulation to the campaign the Tories had launched a month ago, making attacking the £28 billion their top campaigning target—above even stopping the boats. Sunak goaded Starmer about this several times at each Prime Minister’s Question Time for a month. Starmer offered not a word in defence. No wonder Labour MPs were getting jittery about it. Yet a Labour government elected on Starmer’s original GPP would not only have been a huge boost for the workers movement in Britain but would also take the struggle against climate change in this country to a new level.

Barry Gardener, who was Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow minister for the environment, went straight onto the airwaves to denounce what Starmer had done—to give him his due. He told the Today Programme that the decision was “economically illiterate, ecologically irresponsible, and politically inept”—and he was absolutely right. He remains, as far as I am aware, the only Labour MP who has publicly denounced Starmer’s collapse.

Excuses

When Starmer emerged to defend his actions, he offered exactly the same gut-wrenching rationale that Sunak had offered when he collapsed into the fossil fuel agenda—and effectively into climate denial—following the Uxbridge by-election. They both argued that the economic situation had changed and that it was necessary to change with it. In another nasty similarity, both claimed to have realised that it was not necessary to spend as much as they had originally thought to reach net zero and avoid armageddon. The idea that the same results can be reached by doing things differently rather than spending a lot of money is a cynical, calculated lie.

Starmer said that the £28 billion a year had become an albatross around his neck, but that was only because he refused to defend it. Otherwise, it would have been a weapon in his hands. His collapse was not only a huge blow to the campaign for net-zero emissions, but it also threw a lifeline to the Tories and robbed Labour of a radical and popular cutting edge in the general election.

“Starmer’s collapse was not only a huge blow to the campaign for net-zero emissions, but it also threw a lifeline to the Tories and robbed Labour of a radical and popular cutting edge in the general election.

The response from the Guardian the next day was excellent. Its editorial branded it Labour’s green retreat” and went on to say “wrong, wrong, wrong.” It also made three key points:

1) “It flies in the face of the lessons of the Biden administration’s investment in clean energy as an engine for reducing inflation…

2) “Fairly or unfairly, voters will conclude that Labour is too cautious, that it cringes pre-emptively, and that Sir Keir does not seem to believe in much…

3) “It puts a contentious short-term judgement about UK business and politics above the proven need for decisive action on climate. Changes to pledges like the home-insulation scheme echo Rishi Sunak’s policy of unpicking the big decisions and thus continuing our dependence on fossil fuels.”

The Guardian editorial rightly points to the green investment that has been achieved in the USA as a result of Biden’s $386 billion Inflation Reduction Act. This has only been very successful in promoting green energy, but it has already had a positive effect on the US economy.

Leslie Kaufman, writing in Bloomberg last August, sees it as “by far the most significant climate law in US history. He points to $86 billion in private investment that has resulted in 51 new or expanded plants for producing solar panels being built, along with 91 new gigafactories and the creation of more than 100,000 clean-energy jobs.

The EU, moreover, aims to spend at least €1 trillion in green investments over the next decade under what it calls its European Green Deal Investment Plan.

Labour’s chief election coordinator, Pat McFadden, who had led the opposition to the £28bn in the shadow cabinet, went on the Laura Kuenssberg show on Sunday, 11 February,  and insisted that borrowing £28bn was now unsustainable and undefendable. It would now be replaced by private money, which, in any case, he argued, would allow Labour to do almost everything it wanted to do in terms of Starmer’s previous pledges.

This is unmitigated nonsense. While private finance will always be involved in such a project while capitalism exists, it is only governmental action, based on strong public investment and with political will behind it, that can generate the momentum needed to carry through the green transition and tackle the energy crisis by providing cheap and sustainable renewable energy.

McFadden also argued that the plan was an electoral liability. This could hardly be more ludicrous since the package has been repeatedly polled as highly popular, particularly among young people. According to a poll by the Labour List, 67 percent of Labour Party members oppose the U-turn.

Even Andrew Rawnsley, in the Observer the same day, denounced the retreat:

“The abandonment of the commitment to invest £28 billion a year to accelerate the transition to a carbon-free economy is not a routine political volte-face. This was Sir Keir Starmer’s signature pledge, one launched with tremendous fanfare as his flagship policy in 2021. There has not been a larger, more contentious, or more excruciating U-turn during his time as Labour leader.”

The biggest shock for me—call me naïve if you will—was the total capitulation of Ed Miliband, who had proposed £28 billion in the first place and has strongly defended it ever since. He emerged to announce that he fully supported what Starmer had done and that he was right to point out that the economic circumstances had changed. Fiscal responsibility was now clearly necessary, he claimed.

This is pathetic—not least because he actually understands the science involved and its consequences for the planet. This is the man who used to defend the £28 billion on the entirely accurate basis that it is far cheaper to defend the plant than destroy it.

The problem, he insisted, was that to do anything significant on climate change today, you have to be in front-line politics—by which he means at least a cabinet minister. I took this to mean that he has been promised the job of minister for the environment in a Labour government.

“The problem, he insisted, was that to do anything significant on climate change today, you have to be in front-line politics—by which he means at least a cabinet minister.

Starmer’s pledge

Starmer had told the 2021 Labour Party conference that his Green Prosperity Plan would make Britain a “green growth superpower.” The national grid would be decarbonised by 2030 by doubling current onshore wind capacity, tripling solar power capacity, quadrupling offshore wind, and utilising hydro and tidal power to the full.

This, he said, would not only tackle climate change but would cut hundreds of pounds off household energy bills and create up to half a million new climate jobs in the UK. He rightly argued that renewable energy is now nine times cheaper than fossil fuel. There would be £6 billion a year for the retrofitting of 19 million homes over the next decade with insulation to prevent waste and the decarbonisation of home heating. This, he argued, would save 19 million families over £1,000 on their bills, as well as create good construction jobs and boost our energy security.

A state-owned company, called GB Energy, would be established within a year to facilitate the expansion of renewables. £8bn would be made available for manufacturing projects including eight new battery factories, six clean-steel plants, nine renewable-ready ports, a hydrogen electrolyser plant, and numerous renewable energy clusters.

Origins

Starmer’s Plan had its origins in the campaign inside the Labour Party for a Green New Deal in 2018, led by Labour for a Green New Deal (LGND), the bulk of which was included in Corbyn’s 2019 manifesto.

There was an extensive campaign across the party and within the unions. The issue was debated at the 2019 Labour conferences in advance of the general election, which took place in December 2019. Internationally, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts proposed a Green New Deal through a congressional resolution.

In fact, Corbyn had engaged with the climate struggle from the time he was elected Labour Leader. He addressed the 70,000 demonstrators in London in advance of the Paris climate summit in 2015, soon after, with his entire shadow environmental team on the platform with him. He spoke at a number of other major environmental events during this time.

Momentum’s annual event, The World Transformed, held in parallel with Labour’s annual conference, also had strong environmental content and supported LGND.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, after Corbyn’s defeat in 2019, Labour for a Green New Deal faded away, and most of the activity that it had generated around climate change inside the Labour Party went with it. The only forum left for discussing the climate crisis was SERA—Labour’s official environmental campaign—which was not only far from radical but refused to organise locally or maintain any kind of dialogue at the constituency level.

Some of us set up RedGreen Labour as an attempt to fill the void, but while it has a very good website and has done some good things, it has struggled to make its mark. It ran a campaign warning about a capitulation by Starmer once the pressure was on. It demanded that he stick to the pledges and put his Green Prosperity Plan in full in his manifesto for the general election. This would have been a win-win: more votes for Labour and less carbon in the atmosphere.

It was right to do so because such proposals from a party leader likely to be in office soon are rare and have to be vigorously defended. We cannot ignore such proposals just because they come from an unreliable source, particularly when we have less than 10 years to avoid Armageddon. Many things we campaign for come from such sources. In the end, however, Red Green Labour’s campaign had only limited success and was unable to turn the tide.

The first lesson to learn from all this is that you cannot stop global warming and carry through a socially just transition to renewables without winning over the mass organisations to the cause without which we would be marginalised. In Britain, this means the Labour Party and the trade unions, some of which opposed the GPP from the outset, the GMB, for example.

The second lesson is that you can’t treat the environmental crisis as a bolt-on issue or an optional extra. Saving the planet means that it is the number one issue under all circumstances. As has been said many times, nothing can be built on a dead planet. The same principle holds for ecosocialists and organisations presenting themselves as ecosocialists; the environmental struggle must be front and centre of everything they do if they are to make a serious contribution.

“The second lesson is that you can’t treat the environmental crisis as a bolt-on issue or an optional extra. Saving the planet means that it is the number one issue under all circumstances.

In the final analysis, Starmer’s miserable betrayal was a victory of small-c conservatism over the need to defend the only planet that we have. Does it affect the imperative to elect a Labour government in the upcoming general election?

Yes, but ultimately no. To do otherwise would legitimise a far more dangerous bunch of racists, xenophobes, and climate deniers that are masquerading as the current government. In any case, there has to be a fightback inside and outside of the Labour Party, and the best conditions for that will be with Labour in office.

Meanwhile, the temperature is still rising by record margins, the deserts are still expanding, the forests are still burning, the ice is still disappearing, the sea is still rising and filling up with plastic, and weather events are getting more severe, and the other species with which we share the planet are being driven extinct at an ever-increasing rate.


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Alan is the author of Facing the Apocalypse – Arguments for Ecosocialism which can be purchased from Resistance Books.

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