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Why the Green New Deal Didn’t Get a Hearing

Labour’s plan for a Green Industrial Revolution promised to put climate crisis at the heart of Britain’s general election. But the need for radical solutions soon dropped off the agenda — allowing the defining issue of our time to be once again ignored.

Jeremy Corbyn at a meeting with Rebecca Long-Bailey, Barry Gardiner, Naomi Klein, and campaigners from Labour for a Green New Deal on October 16, 2019 in London. (Labour for a Green New Deal)

An area the size of Scotland burns in Australia. More than sixty lives have been lost to flooding in Jakarta; Zambia teeters on the brink of famine; and oil stocks soar as the president of the United States openly stokes war with Iran. A Green New Deal (GND) — and an internationalist GND in particular — is more urgent than ever. But at the same moment, its advocates are still reeling from a devastating defeat in an election that saw the GND’s first trial in a national electoral contest.

In the wake of the Labour Party’s decisive loss in December, the GND’s proponents have had to grapple with the thought that the GND may have failed its first test at the polls. And if, indeed, it did fail, what now? Where next, as we look ahead to the possibility of further thwarted negotiations at the UN’s COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, five years under an unimpeded Tory majority, and the 2020 US elections?

The temptation to despair in such moments is strong. As is the lure of the conclusion that the GND frame is a failed experiment to be abandoned in favor of a return to discrete, technocratic solutions, in the hope of scoring small wins where we can. But for many reasons, this temptation must be resisted. This turn would be a losing strategy, abandoning the spectacular recent gains the climate movement has made using economic, class, and global justice frames. It would be to abdicate our outsized responsibility in tackling the immense challenge ahead.

Yet at the same time, to abandon the GND would be to disregard many of the unfortunate realities of this election. Because in truth, the climate never materialized as a core issue in this campaign — and the GND scarcely saw the light of day. Nonetheless, taking the project forward in the wake of a devastating result requires a genuine evaluation of how the climate crisis was posed as the key question of our time — or perhaps more accurately, why it wasn’t.

A Public Concern

Though the United Kingdom falls short on climate action by many metrics, the country enjoys the comparative luxury of being defined by insufficient action rather than full-fledged denial — a luxury many of its peers don’t always enjoy. Notable in this respect is the Tory government’s establishment of a 2050 net-zero target, with support across the political spectrum. In last month’s election, every major party’s manifesto pledged to tackle the climate crisis and meet — or in many cases surpass — the 2050 ambition. This election also saw a world-first televised leaders’ debate devoted to climate change, though Boris Johnson was notably absent.

This unique position for climate change in British parliamentary politics is echoed by the electorate. Polling data both before and during the election consistently found unprecedented levels of public concern over the climate and support for ambitious action — an attitude that often spanned both demography and party affiliations. A survey commissioned by ClientEarth found that a remarkable 63 percent of respondents supported a Green New Deal, defined as a large, long-term investment in green jobs and infrastructure.

These trends appeared to hold in the so-called Labour heartland marginals as well, many of which represent postindustrial communities formerly centered on carbon-intensive industries like steel and coal mining. More than two-thirds of voters in forty-five such seats, including major Conservative gains like Workington and Don Valley, stated that climate change would influence how they voted, while more than half said they supported government intervention to create green jobs.

Nonetheless, the climate crisis failed to take root as a defining issue in December. Despite forming a cornerstone of both the Labour and Green Party manifestos, the GND failed to leap off the pages of either. Labour framed its entire manifesto around the vision of a new green economy based on stewardship, industry, and shared prosperity before choosing to leave this GND vision on the shelf for much of its campaign. Meanwhile, the Green Party’s decision to participate in an ill-conceived “Remain Alliance” of anti-Brexit parties consumed much of its candidates’ airtime.

Building a Compelling Narrative

This is not to say the issue was entirely absent. Shadow Secretary for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Rebecca Long-Bailey made a few impassioned speeches on the party’s Green Industrial Revolution (GIR), which offered a vision for green reindustrialization alongside a massive program of home retrofitting and energy system decarbonization. But the GIR was impeded by popular perceptions of the credibility of intangible promises like “one million green jobs,” as well as the deep distrust of politicians’ ability to deliver on their pledges that plagued the campaign more broadly.

Crucially, the effect of limiting the GIR largely to Long-Bailey’s own campaigning was to once again delimit the climate crisis as a niche issue belonging to a specific brief. The GIR, therefore, felt like a series of siloed, technical proposals, rather than a vital response to the defining challenge of our time; a compelling economic narrative with both winners and losers; and the lens through which virtually all other policy would be appraised should Labour come to power.

These same problems permeated what could have been a momentous leaders’ climate debate. Here, dry, technocratic discussion steeped in outdated liberal environmentalism culminated in a puerile final question about leaders’ “personal climate pledges.” For Jeremy Corbyn in particular, the debate was an almost perfect miniature of one of the Labour campaign’s defining problems: a frustrating inability to thread a clear command of the issues, genuine passion, and visionary policy into a compelling narrative.

Perhaps most important is that the GIR was not the GND. Though the terms were used interchangeably by activists and politicians alike following the passing of the Green New Deal motion at the Labour Party’s autumn conference, this obscured the essential differences of the two programs. The GIR offered a suite of innovative, well-designed policies for reindustrializing the economy, creating green jobs through projects such as the retrofitting of the UK’s housing stock, electric vehicle manufacturing, and the construction of municipally owned wind farms.

It did not, however, offer a cohesive vision for economic transformation by explicitly naming the roots of the problems it confronted, such as the structural bases of wealth inequality in the UK, or a financial system predicated on stoking both the fossil fuel industry and the housing crisis. This omission left Labour unable to sell the story of an entirely new economic consensus or identify how its practical policies — municipally owned energy projects, community car clubs, “Warm Homes for All” — would help confront these more fundamental ills.

Yet this is precisely the innovation of the GND, in carefully linking discrete policy interventions into a single project which names its foes and provides the plans for vanquishing them. The GND did not, therefore, genuinely stand trial in this election — a failure that offers insights into the necessary priorities for the climate movement going forward.

Credible Alternative

That climate change did not emerge as a core issue in the election was not the fault of parliamentary candidates alone — as activists, think-tankers, and campaigners, we made several blunders. Despite the “Labour for a Green New Deal” campaign’s efforts to communicate beyond our immediate, supportive audience, our inability to do so was palpable in the final result. When confronted with the GND on the doorstep, voters’ most common response was sheer lack of awareness, either of the concept itself or of associated policies. Constraints on time and resources for outreach were a part of this, and both can be remedied in the coming years. But simply raising public awareness is the easier of two battles.

The much deeper, longer struggle will be convincing people of the GND — of its urgency, of its credibility, and of its immediate impacts. For the UK in particular, the favored road to doing so thus far — parliamentary politics — is now barricaded by the likely insurmountable obstacle of a powerful and unreceptive Conservative majority. However, political challenges are fought in many more spaces than national legislatures. The task for the Left in the UK is to remember this, and to reignite its history of organizing in alternative political spheres. To do so, it must look both above and below the level of national politics.

This work begins in communities, reaching out to people through means that don’t necessarily include the national party machinery. It involves conducting demonstrations of GND-type policies and their tangible benefits; already, organizations like the Centre for Local Economic Strategies — the engine behind the “Preston Model” of local community wealth building — are leaders in this work.

This effort also involves building from both the successes and the failures of municipally owned energy companies like Nottingham’s Robin Hood and Edinburgh’s Our Power, and translating generic pillars of the GND like “democratic ownership” into their concrete potential, like reduced bills and an accelerated transition to renewable energy. Crucially, for the Labour Party, this work also involves organizing within trade unions, to make the rhetoric of a worker-led just transition a reality. As the core of the Labour Party and the necessary vanguard of any just transition, putting down strong roots in trade unions will be an existential task for the GND.

In this vital turn to localism and community wealth building, however, the GND movement must also avoid simply turning inward. Community-owned energy companies and local procurement practices should be replicated in as many places as will benefit from them, but it is important always to recognize these actions as situated in a much wider fight against a hyper-globalized and finance-dominated economy, in which Britain’s actions as a seat of financial power have tremendous repercussions.

To complement community action, the GND’s utility in both inter- and transnational spheres of influence, such as trade negotiations and the financial services industry, offers a clear counter to the well-worn argument climate activists face from those seeking to dismiss the importance of radical decarbonization in the UK in light of comparatively large emitters like China or India. The Left’s preferred response to this argument has been to highlight our immense cumulative responsibility for global emissions and imperial actions. This is both a true and vital argument to make, but it does not immediately provide a clear path for action.

The GND frame is essential to combatting this dismissal by helping to name the sources of current and future injustices that we have the power to change. These are the forces that wreak ongoing destruction through extractivism, exploitation, conflict, and indirect emissions, for instance, through soaring financial support for fossil-fuel projects overseas, and they are key nodes in the GND’s vision of economic transformation. They are also forces that transcend borders; indeed, the actions of the City of London have consequences for our domestic housing market as much as they do deforestation in Indonesia.

Naming the Enemy

By naming globalized financial capitalism as the root of climate and economic crises, the GND is thus necessarily internationalist. And for this particular project, the coming years offer significant opportunities and challenges: post-Brexit trade negotiations, the convening of COP26 in Glasgow, and a newly appointed governor of the Bank of England, to name a few. The fight to embed the GND in these institutions is a daunting but essential task, with potentially transformative ramifications. Success will require pressure and leadership from a united front of activists, unions, think tanks, and a strong opposition Labour Party.

This is why the GND — and an internationalist GND in particular — remains the essential frame for climate justice going forward. The movement suffered a setback in Britain’s general election, but the GND was never just a national project. Though highly important, national politics are just one vehicle in its realization, and the GND can no more be confined to parliamentary policy than climate breakdown can be contained by national borders.

The GND remains the only approach to the climate crisis which not only offers solutions to discrete problems, but which identifies these problems at their shared root. It is also the only approach whose ambition matches the scale of the existential challenge at hand. Crucially, it has yet to be established as a cohesive policy platform; instead, the GND has been a vision for systemic change based on the recognition of the shared basis of the problems we face in an exhausted economic model. Thus far, this ambiguity has been both an asset and a hindrance. Going forward, the success of the Green New Deal will hinge on doing the work of turning this vision into a lived reality in every sphere of political life.