“My MP is a shepherdess. What can I do to get her to ensure the Withdrawal Bill protects the environment?” Not the most obvious question you expect a panel to be asked at a Labour fringe event, but one that was indicative of the new energy that permeated through this year’s conference in Brighton. Everywhere you looked there were new members and activists, buoyed up on the wave of Corbynism, eager to change the world and asking the best way how.
What a marked difference from last year’s conference which felt more like a wake than an annual gathering of a political party. The biggest change was that there is now no doubt who is in charge of the party. Despite having just won his second leadership election in Liverpool, Corbyn was ruling over a divided party. These divisions still exist but the unexpected election result earlier this year has solidified Corbyn’s position as leader and boosted the energised party base. The real question now is how does Corbyn build on this political mandate?
One positive, along with all this new political energy, was that there was noticeably more being said about the environment and climate change. Both at fringe events and in the main hall, discussions on nature and climate were in abundance, and not just in the silo of ‘environmentalism’: Chi Onwurah, shadow industrial strategy minister, used the SERA rally to highlight the importance of a low carbon transition being at the heart of a successful modern industrial strategy; I heard the shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman assert several times that environmental justice was as important as social justice; Steve Rotherham, metro mayor of the Liverpool city region, explained how low carbon industries were the future for the Merseyside economy and would help to make the north west a global leader in low carbon thinking; and, on the main stage, shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry identified climate change as a root cause of current international crises and an issue to be tackled head on now if we are not to pay for the consequences further down the line.
Like the election manifesto earlier this year, the narrative of Conference was hitting the mark, but there is still a real lack of policy ideas to support it. This was not only apparent on discussions of environment but seemed to be a running theme throughout the four days in the main hall. Whenever the debate started getting too detailed, a fresh rendition of ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!’ rang out across the crowds. In terms of simple, catchy messaging, this works. No amount of warm, complimentary wine could remove this earworm from my head. I have been waking up, humming the tune.
Perhaps Labour shouldn’t be putting forward any environmental policy yet. Three months after a surprise election result, they are still on the high of a not-quite-victory. But the main message from Corbyn’s speech on the last day was that Labour are now a government in waiting. If this is the case, environmentalists will need more assurances than adapted White Stripes songs.
Nowhere is this more the case than on the issue of Brexit. Almost completely missing from the main hall, discussions on the biggest issue affecting the country were sidelined to the fringe events. The question about the shepherdess was asked at a Greener UK event on how to secure a better environment through Brexit and beyond. At this same event, there was applause at Mary Creagh’s annoyance that Brexit was not being debated as part of the main conference programme.
Greener UK has a lot to say on this subject. Green Alliance is one of the 13 environmental organisations that make up this coalition convened in response to Brexit. Along with MPs from other parties, some Labour MPs have already put their names to Greener UK’s drafted amendments for the Withdrawal Bill, which are intended to ensure our environmental protections are the same on the day after we leave the EU as the day before. But many more MPs need to back them so they can be debated properly and supported in Parliament.
If Labour truly is ready for government, then it needs to take its good intentions and develop them into clear policies that allow the people of the UK to have a healthy environment, a thriving low carbon economy and a nation at the forefront of global climate leadership. In the meantime, we have some answers for the activist with the shepherdess MP. We have produced a briefing for MPs on the Withdrawal Bill with clear actions for them to take. One such action is for MPs to join their colleagues from across the political spectrum in supporting the aforementioned amendments which will maintain or improve environmental protections whatever happens over the coming years.
[Image: Brighton pier by Jonas Bengtsson from Flickr Creative Commons]