Some would argue that the speech by Tony Blair at Labour’s 1994 party conference in Blackpool was era-defining. “It is time to break out of the past and break through with a clear, radical and modern vision for Britain,” he said. One may disagree with that vision – but he committed to it years before his election, and delivered much of it in the years after. Huge investment in public services; a minimum wage; a Freedom of Information Act; devolution for Scotland and Wales, and commitment to peace in Northern Ireland.
No one is likely to mistake me for a Blairite – and I won’t glorify the record of a man who took us to an illegal and immoral war on a false prospectus. But he offers a telling comparison with the current flip-flopping, pledge-breaking, utterly undaring Labour leader, Keir Starmer. A lot has changed in the past three years, let alone the past 30. Brexit, Covid, Ukraine and Liz Truss’s omnishambolic mini-budget have changed our nation’s economic course. But one change frequently omitted from that list is the climate. The Earth has heated up more in the past 30 years than it did in the previous 110 – and that will only accelerate further over the next 30. On climate, as the US campaigner Bill McKibben famously observed, winning slowly is the same as losing.
Inexplicably, Starmer seems intent on losing. In 2021, Labour laid out an ambitious climate investment plan of £28bn a year until 2030. That commitment has now been postponed in favour of a promise to “ramp up” towards £28bn in the second half of its parliamentary term.
A zero-carbon economy fit for the future won’t come about by chance – nor by sole reliance on the private sector. Public investment is essential, and urgent. Upscaling storage technologies, developing wave energy and floating offshore wind, restoring sewage-filled rivers and upskilling millions of workers to fill the green jobs we need for this transformation: these are no mean feats. But that’s no reason to delay investment – it’s a reason to accelerate it. And after the government’s new climate adaptation programme, released this week, amounted to nothing more than recycled pledges to do more research – rather than to actually deliver the adaptation measures we desperately need – this investment simply couldn’t be more urgent.
Public investment must be bolstered by public ownership, too – yet another Labour broken promise. Starmer’s 2020 commitment to “support common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water” has been obliterated to the extent that only rail could see a potential return to public hands – hardly a bold move considering the Tories have already nationalised chunks of it. Even after the scandal of Thames Water’s crippling debt, Starmer won’t commit to running public services for the public good, and protecting our natural environment rather than private profit. It would be easy enough to criticise Labour’s self-imposed fiscal straitjacket, and just suggest that it borrows more to fund these promises – which it certainly should. Not least because that investment will not only pay for itself over time, but pay literal dividends – globally, switching from fossil fuels to clean energy could save as much as £10.2tn by 2050. But what’s so infuriating is that it refuses to consider a whole host of other options to fund our economic transformation.
A wealth tax – of 1% on the richest 1% – could, according to University of Greenwich estimates, bring in as much as £70bn. Instead, the Treasury currently supports the fossil fuel industry through tax breaks and subsidies to the tune of £10bn a year – a figure that any climate-friendly Labour government should surely slash. Conversely, the cost of failing to do so should focus attention. David Cameron’s decision a decade ago to “cut the green crap”, which ended up adding £150 annually to every household’s energy bill, should be seared on the minds of climate ditherers.
But it would be shortsighted to suggest Labour’s current absence of vision is purely down to economics. Its commitment to issue no new oil and gas licences is indeed welcome – but the revelation that a Labour government would not revoke the Rosebank oilfield licence (if approved by the Tories as expected in the coming days) is a tacit endorsement of this climate crime. This isn’t just any oilfield, but the largest undeveloped field in the North Sea, set to produce 200m tonnes of CO2, totalling more than the combined annual CO2 emissions of the 28 lowest-income countries. First oil is not expected until between 2026 and 2028, and investors are still assessing whether to press ahead – so why is Labour not making it crystal clear to them that they should not? By stubbornly refusing to revoke, Starmer has effectively given this project the green light himself. From abolishing tuition fees, to adopting rent controls, to offering free school meals for primary children, Starmer has been hamstrung by his own arbitrary fiscal rules, fear of rightwing press backlash, and a tribal determination to take control from rival party factions. The clear, radical and modern vision for Britain is nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile, people are shifting from desperation to – as the Guardian’s John Harris put it recently – “a widespread sense of fatalistic hopelessness”. The conditions are now ripe for the extreme right to continue apace with efforts to seize the narrative and control the political agenda.
So technocratic tinkering and over-cautious managerialism won’t deliver urgently needed change, or the hope that comes from inspirational leadership. But a radically transformative vision will. That means ditching fossil fuels for good to deliver abundant, affordable energy; creating millions of skilled and stable green jobs, paying a fair and decent wage; a zero-carbon economy that redistributes wealth to those on the lowest incomes; and investing in public – not private – services to protect our health, power cheap and clean transport, restore our natural environment and enrich our lives. The moment to set out that vision and deliver it is now.