Conference diary: signs that Labour is coming out of the silo

Labour party conference smallWhat a difference two years makes. The Labour party conference in Liverpool in 2016 saw a party at war with itself: division between the majority of members and the majority of parliamentarians, and a front bench at odds with the mainstream media. Liverpool in 2018 still had these issues, but the party looked like it was doing a much better job of dealing with them. This year’s conference saw Jeremy Corbyn and, by association, the Labour Party, much more at ease. The leader’s speech on the final day was reported as “his best address to date”.

 

Jeremy Corbyn’s weren’t the most ambitious green announcements of the conference
For the green movement, there was a lot to be pleased with. Clean growth and a focus on sustainability was a main strand of Corbyn’s speech but, oddly, these were not the most impressive environmental announcements during the week. While the creation of 400,000 skilled jobs in green industries, a target of 85 per cent renewable electricity within 12 years of coming to power, and a plan to make every house in the UK more energy efficient, were to be welcomed, more ambitious policies could be found elsewhere.

On Monday, Rebecca Long-Bailey, shadow secretary for business, energy and industrial strategy, announced an ambition for the UK to have net zero greenhouse gas emissions within 30 years. Along with a letter to the prime minister last month from over 130 MPs from all parties, this announcement placed net zero right at the heart of the political mainstream and laid the groundwork for the UK to continue its proud history of world leading climate action. More importantly, it was accompanied by solid policy proposals (repeated two days later in the leader’s speech) that would allow the UK to deliver in the short term and start on the road to net zero now.

At the Greener UK event on Sunday, Sue Hayman, shadow secretary for environment, food and rural affairs, promoted The green transformation, a joint report by her and the shadow business secretary that identified the environment as the bedrock of the economy. The need for environment and climate not to be addressed solely by their respective departments, but to be central to government thinking as a whole, was highlighted by two policies in particular: a mandate on the Office for Budget Responsibility to model the impacts on the public finances from climate change; and a National Transformation Fund that would invest £250 billion over ten years to place the economy on a low carbon, sustainable footing.

Evidence of intellectual underpinning
Another noticeable difference this year was evidence of intellectual underpinning beneath the politics. My complaint last year was that Labour seemed to think political chanting was a good enough substitute for real policy thinking. They could not be accused of that this year. From the return of Tribune, providing an in-depth look at the problems facing the north of England, to IPPR’s well received Commission on Economic Justice (CEJ) report, there is a feeling that mainstream thinkers are getting behind Corbynism and attempting to influence it. An effect, perhaps, of the wildly unpredictable political landscape that the next six months will bring.

Michael Jacobs, director of the CEJ, spoke on the panel at Greener UK’s fringe event and pointed out the importance of making the upcoming Environment Bill as ambitious as possible. He emphasised that a sustainable economy can only be delivered if the UK is bold enough to set out a world leading environmental governance system, much as it did ten years ago with the Climate Change Act.

But how deep does it go?
A slight worry is that, apart from the leader’s speech, the front bench announcements and Greener UK’s event, many other speakers at many other conference events spoke about transforming the economy without mentioning climate or resource efficiency once. Productivity was discussed only in terms of man-hours rather than in terms of water, carbon or resource use. However, that can’t be said of the audiences. At every event I attended, at least two, and often the majority of, questions had an environmental slant, indicating that attendees were way ahead of those on the platform at recognising that green issues are fundamental to a sustainable economy.

So, while there are still concerns about how deeply embedded the green agenda is across Labour, rather than just confined to appropriate departments, Jeremy Corbyn’s clean growth speech is a good start. We will be looking for further action over the next year that proves he sees the environment as a central bedrock of the economy, rather than as a side issue. If the conference is anything to go by, Labour’s audience certainly expects that.

[Image: Rwendland (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons]

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