A Green New Deal for the UK

The Labour Party's John McDonnell on how a "Green Industrial Revolution" can advance a radical program against climate change, bring energy workers and the rest of the working class to our side, and win socialism in our time.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and Rebecca Long Bailey MP, Labour’s Shadow Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary, view houses with solar panels on Mereside Grove in Worsley on May 16, 2019 in Salford, England. Anthony Devlin / Getty

Jeremy Corbyn, my friend for over forty years and the next Prime Minister of the UK, pledged last year a “GI Bill” for energy workers.

Speaking at a conference I organized on alternative models of ownership, Jeremy said that:

Just as the US GI Bill gave education, housing and income support to every unemployed veteran returning from the Second World War, the next Labour Government will guarantee that all energy workers are offered retraining, a new job on equivalent terms and conditions covered by collective agreements, and fully supported in their housing and income needs through transition.

The significance of these words was to commit Labour to putting the needs of workers front and center in making the radical transformations needed to achieve our low-carbon future.

The importance of this cannot be underestimated in Britain, where the criminal treatment of mining communities at the hands of Margaret Thatcher and the establishment is the foremost working-class experience of energy transition.

If climate justice activists are going to take energy workers and the public with us, our policies must not place a disproportionate burden on the poor, and must not treat flippantly the fears of working-class communities whose past experience of economic transition has been overwhelmingly disruptive.

It is the Labour Party under Jeremy’s dual commitment to the needs of the working class and the planet — to economic justice and climate justice as inextricably linked — that is enabling us to develop the radical program needed, and that’s what is making this such an exciting moment.

It’s a commitment Jeremy and I have been proud to shout from the rooftops for years, tabling a Parliamentary motion on the climate emergency in 2010, though I sometimes say that I learned more about climate change from Climate Camp activities than from all the debates in Parliament.

Of course, the GI Bill isn’t the only piece of American political history that has international resonance on the Left.

Roosevelt’s New Deal helped the US recover and rebuild after the Great Depression. Now Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others’ Green New Deal is causing waves of interest across the Atlantic with calls to revive that model to tackle the climate crisis.

This upsurge in climate activism is mirrored in the rise to prominence of Extinction Rebellion in the UK and around the world through the inspiring action of the climate-school strikers.

Without the New Deal as part of our national political memory, Labour are framing our vision of a green future in terms of a Green Industrial Revolution and doing the exciting work of turning big-picture demands into implementation-ready policies.

Building on the UK’s role in the first industrial revolution — something as familiar from schooldays as I imagine the New Deal is for Americans — we are proposing a thoroughgoing transformation of every aspect of our lives.

The Green Industrial Revolution will have to be as dramatic as the changes in the lives of those who lived through the advent of the railways or domestic electricity, affecting how we produce and consume food, energy, and everything else.

That is the size of the challenge, and why Labour forced a vote in May to make the UK the first country that has declared a climate emergency.

Where there are concentrated vested interests in unsustainable business models for energy, agriculture, or elsewhere, we know that corporate opposition will make societal shifts politically tougher to deliver.

So, framing the potential catastrophe that faces us on these terms was a vital step in conveying the urgency of the change needed and winning popular support for the enormous changes needed. In case anyone hasn’t noticed yet: if there was a time for incrementalist or nudge solutions, it has long passed.

The Green New Deal is inspiring us here and across Europe, but I’m proud to say that my colleagues were ahead of the game in thinking about the detailed policies we need to instigate when Labour comes to power shortly.

In 2018, then-Shadow Business Secretary Clive Lewis announced our commitment to generating 60 percent of energy from low- or zero-carbon sources by 2030. In 2018, Rebecca Long-Bailey built on that by pledging us to reaching net zero before 2050. As with all our policies on climate, our targets are led by the science and driven by our commitment to be as ambitious and radical as possible.

At the Labour Party conference Long-Bailey and Shadow Environment Secretary Sue Hayman published their inspiring Green Transformation pamphlet, including, amongst others commitments, to reverse the decline of biodiversity, remove barriers to onshore wind, invest in tidal lagoon technology, upgrade the insulation of four million homes, introduce a Clean Air Act, and encourage mode shift to active and public transport.

Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald has developed our transport policies further since, with pledges on free bus fares for young people supported by commitments to restoring slashed government funding.

Under Labour the Treasury will ensure that public spending rules reflect environmental constraints and that companies which fail to meet green criteria will be ineligible for listing on the London stock exchange.

And just the other month we rolled out our plan to install 1.75 million homes with solar panels, prioritizing those in social housing, to cut both household bills and carbon emissions.

Much of this becomes possible because, like the politicians and campaigners of the Green New Deal, we are prepared to call for large-scale public investment.

The financial context may be different — we aren’t in the depths of the Great Depression or the Global Financial Crisis, and we can’t wait around for another crash — so the importance of the task means finding new ideas for how to deliver transformational change led by the state.

Our National Transformation Fund — £250 billion of capital investment over ten years — has transitioning to a low-carbon future at its heart and every project will be judged against criteria not just for what it delivers but how.

Given the environmental damage done by the UK since the industrial revolution began, not to mention the connection between slavery and industrial capital, it is essential that Britain leads — not in deciding what needs doing and how, which must be led by those at the forefront in confronting environmental breakdown — but in making the domestic changes needed to ensure continued human life on Earth.

As Dalia Gebrial has written, we must ensure that we do not replicate implicitly or explicitly racist assumptions about the greater importance of Western lives, and we must center the struggles of those in the Global South who have led resistance to the industrial model of recent centuries.

I could not be prouder to be working with Shadow International Development Secretary Dan Carden in continuing the work of his predecessor Kate Osamor on addressing climate breakdown through “an international development policy that seeks to transform — rather than preserve — the status quo.”

What differentiates us from the corporate wing of the environmental movement is the political analysis that sees the need for collective solutions to society’s problems.

Back in 2017 our General Election manifesto “For the Many not the Few” committed us to public ownership of the electricity and gas networks, so that the billions currently paid out in dividends to shareholders can be invested in infrastructure needed to bring renewable energy online.

We have now published details of how we will put power under democratic control while we consult on how workers and energy users will run services democratically. You can see the theoretical underpinnings behind some of this in our Alternative Models of Ownership report which argued that moving away from private ownership is essential in areas to deliver noncommercial objectives, such as tackling climate change.

So when I laid out plans for how our plans to roll out renewable energy generation could create 50,000 green jobs in Scotland, central to that was how joined-up thinking and strategic public direction would make community energy initiatives, currently lacking grid connectivity, economically viable.

And I referred to the frustrations of trade union members who have heard promises of green jobs but never seen them materialize: not because those jobs don’t exist but because successive governments have failed to support key industries.

Ten years ago we tried and failed to persuade the then-government to intervene to save jobs at wind-turbine manufacturer Vestas and fight for new green jobs.

It should be clear that the only policy solutions are those which enable urgent collective direction of key decisions and move us away from reliance on the crude market mechanisms that have failed to tackle the problem for years.

Not just to ensure that transition happens but to ensure that any transition is just.

The principle behind a GI Bill for energy workers goes much further.

We simply will not win the central argument on the need for a red-green transition if we cannot show how the costs will be borne by the few not the many.

Reconfiguring the economy is behind everything we plan, environmental considerations second to none, but it takes powerful direction to transition in a just way rather than pass on the costs to those least able to pay.

Environmental degradation isn’t just an international class issue, it’s a class issue in the UK — in terms of the effect, but also in terms of how we transition.

A global class-based approach is essential to us not just because it’s necessary environmentally and politically, but because we put humanity at the center of our socialism.

That means while we reject the economic model which privileges economic growth ahead of sustainability, we also reject the grim Malthusianism creed that the alternative is to limit people or their living standards.

There are environmental limits, but the limits to what we can achieve within them are principally political, not natural. And it’s those constraints — imposed by the way we organize society — which socialists want to smash.

Our socialism is about liberation from a system that pits better lives for humankind against the well-being of our natural surroundings.

That inextricable link between climate and social justice is what makes this fight the most important of our lifetimes.

Developments in the US should excite all of us across the Atlantic. It’s clear that the ideological momentum is now on the Left around much of the world, but the clock is ticking and we may not have a better chance to build a sustainable future.

In the words of Naomi Klein:

The real solutions to the climate crisis are also our best hope of building a much more enlightened economic system, one that closes deep inequalities, strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work and radically reins in corporate power.