A Green New Deal?

In her newstatesman.com blog, Green Party leader Caroline Lucas says it's time to make finance the s

After the bursting of the credit bubble in August, 2007 Alastair Darling repeatedly assured us that Britain’s ‘economic fundamentals’ are sound. The implication was that the ‘real’ economy was quite distinct from the bubble economy inhabited by bankers, short-sellers and hedge fund managers. Consumers were given the impression that a firewall existed between them and the bursting credit bubble.

It now turns out that there is no firewall; even the chancellor has to acknowledge negative feedback loops between the financial economy and the real economy. It is not possible, after all, to compartmentalise within the economy, any more than it is possible to erect firewalls between the ‘real economy’, the credit bubble, and climate change.

It is clear that the three are inextricably linked.

Easy money has financed easy shopping, and easy shopping has boosted production and energy use in countries around the world. As we re-financed mortgages, maxed out on credit cards, invested in buy-to-lets, shopped for 4x4s, handbags and sports trainers.

So we burned more finite supplies of oil and coal, and this boosted manufacturing and production in far-away places, and powered economic growth. And as we burned up these precious, scarce resources, as we stripped more forests, farmed more land, fished more fish – so the earth grew more dangerously warm and less diverse.

Somehow, something, somewhere had give. These old ideas - that we could live forever on borrowed money and on borrowed time and that there are no limits to the earth’s resources – were a series of bubbles that had to burst.

The credit bubble was the first to go - on 9th August, 2007 when banks froze lending and plunged the global economy into a crisis that is still unfolding today, and becomes more terrifying as each day passes.

The shopping bubble has proved more resilient. While there are signs that UK consumer confidence is waning, the government’s national statistics office announced in August that growth, albeit moderate growth “in retail sales volume is driven by strength in clothing and footwear stores.”

So we are still shopping for clothes and shoes. So much so that developers are confident enough to open three new massive shopping centres in London, Liverpool and Bristol.

But while we shop, an even graver threat than the financial crisis is looming: the ‘bursting’ of the greenhouse gas bubble.

The melting of Arctic sea-ice, the rise in methane emissions, rapid de-forestation and increased droughts all create positive feedback effects. Forests are no longer carbon dioxide absorbers, but instead produce carbon dioxide. Thick permafrost no longer bottles up methane; instead it melts, spewing out methane and magnifying climate change.

And still the Labour government baulks at the scale and urgency of the threat to our security. And at the scale of adjustment, adaptation and investment needed to address the threat. Britain’s economy must undergo a major structural adjustment, to adapt to the threat posed to our security by climate change.

But, while the financial adjustment is already happening - albeit chaotically - the economic adjustment has yet to be addressed.

Just two weeks ago Labour ministers seemed to promise an expansion of airports, motorways and coal-fired power stations. We were offered no leadership, no vision of the much more ambitious drive for energy efficiency that is needed, or of the large-scale alternative energy investment that is vital to our security.

What is the way forward? Along with eight other green economics experts, I have co-authored a report that shows us the new direction we need.

We need a Green New Deal, based on increased regulation of the finance sector, so that finance once again becomes servant to the economy. As in the New Deal era of the 1930s, we need low interest rates and minimal tax evasion if we are to finance the massive investment needed for a multi-billion pound crash programme to make every building in the country a power station, while maximising the UK’s use of small and large-scale renewables. We need to mobilise a carbon army of green-collar workers to implement this programme. Finally we need to localise the production of food, and build a more sustainable local economy in food and other resources.

It is only such a programme that could give the people of Britain hope; that could help Britain survive this crisis, and enable our citizens to live better, more happily, and within the limits of our ecological budgets.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley: "The Greens can win over Ukip voters too"

The party co-leaders condemned Labour's "witch hunt" of Green-supporting members. 

“You only have to cast your eyes along those green benches to think this place doesn't really represent modern Britain,” said Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green MP, of the House of Commons. “There are lots of things you could do about it, and one is say: ‘Why not have job share MPs?’”

Politics is full of partnerships and rivalries, but not job shares. When Lucas and Jonathan Bartley were elected co-leaders of the Green party in September, they made history. 

“I don't think any week's been typical so far,” said Bartley, when I met the co-leaders in Westminster’s Portcullis House. During the debate on the Hinkley power plant, he said, Lucas was in her constituency: “I was in Westminster, so I could pop over to do the interviews.”

Other times, it’s Bartley who travels: “I’ve been over to Calais already, and I was up in Morecambe and Lancaster. It means we’re not left without a leader.”

The two Green leaders have had varied careers. Lucas has become a familiar face in Parliament since 2010, whereas Bartley has spent most of his career in political backrooms and wonkish circles (he co-founded the think tank Ekklesia). In the six weeks since being elected, though, they seem to have mastered the knack of backing each other up. After Lucas, who represents Brighton Pavilion, made her point about the green benches, Bartley chimed in. “My son is a wheelchair user. He is now 14," he said. "I just spent a month with him, because he had to have a major operation and he was in the recovery period. The job share allows that opportunity.”

It’s hard enough for Labour’s shadow cabinet to stay on message. So how will the Greens do it? “We basically said that although we've got two leaders, we've got one set of policies,” said Lucas. She smiled. “Whereas Labour kind of has the opposite.”

The ranks of the Greens, like Labour, have swelled since the referendum. Many are the usual suspects - Remainers still distressed about Brexit. But Lucas and Bartley believe they can tap into some of the discontent driving the Ukip vote in northern England.

“In Morecambe, I was chatting to someone who was deciding whether to vote Ukip or Green,” said Bartley. “He was really distrustful of the big political parties, and he wanted to send a clear message.”

Bartley points to an Ashcroft poll showing roughly half of Leave voters believed capitalism was a force for ill (a larger proportion nevertheless was deeply suspicious of the green movement). Nevertheless, the idea of voters moving from a party defined by border control to one that is against open borders “for now” seems counterintuitive. 

“This issue in the local election wasn’t about migration,” Bartley said. “This voter was talking about power and control, and he recognised the Greens could give him that.

“He was remarking it was the first time anyone had knocked on his door.”

According to a 2015 study by the LSE researcher James Dennison, Greens and Kippers stand out almost equally for their mistrust in politicians, and their dissatisfaction with British democracy. 

Lucas believes Ukip voters want to give “the system” a “bloody big kick” and “people who vote Green are sometimes doing that too”. 

She said: “We’re standing up against the system in a very different way from Ukip, but to that extent there is a commonality.”

The Greens say what they believe, she added: “We’re not going to limit our ambitions to the social liberal.”

A more reliable source of support may be the young. A May 2015 YouGov poll found 7 per cent of voters aged 18 to 29 intended to vote Green, compared to just 2 per cent of those aged 60+. 

Bartley is cautious about inflaming a generational divide, but Lucas acknowledges that young people feel “massively let down”.

She said: “They are certainly let down by our housing market, they are let down by universities. 

“The Greens are still against tuition fees - we want a small tax for the biggest businesses to fund education because for us education is a public good, not a private commodity.”

Of course, it’s all very well telling young people what they want to hear, but in the meantime the Tory government is moving towards a hard Brexit and scrapping maintenance grants. Lucas and Bartley are some of the biggest cheerleaders for a progressive alliance, and Lucas co-authored a book with rising Labour star Lisa Nandy on the subject. On the book tour, she was “amazed” by how many people turned up “on wet Friday evenings” to hear about “how we choose a less tribal politics”. 

Nevertheless, the idea is still controversial, not least among many in Nandy's own party. The recent leadership contest saw a spate of members ejected for publicly supporting the Greens, among other parties. 

“It was like a witch hunt,” said Lucas. “Some of those tweets were from a year or two ago. They might have retweeted something that happened to be from me saying ‘come join us in opposing fracking’, which is now a Labour policy. To kick someone out for that is deeply shocking.”

By contrast, the Greens have recently launched a friends scheme for supporters, including those who are already a member of another party. “The idea that one party is going to know it all is nonsense,” said Bartley. “That isn’t reality.”

Lucas and Bartley believe the biggest potential for a progressive alliance is at constituency level, where local people feel empowered, not disenfranchised, by brokering deals. They recall the 1997 election, when voters rallied around the independent candidate Martin Bell to trounce the supposedly safe Tory MP Neil Hamilton. Citing a recent letter co-signed by the Greens, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru condemning Tory rhetoric on immigrants, Bartley points out that smaller parties are already finding ways to magnify their voice. The fact the party backed down on listing foreign workers was, he argued, “a significant win”. 

As for true electoral reform, in 2011, a referendum on changing Britain's rigid first past the post system failed miserably. But the dismal polls for the Labour party, could, Lucas thinks, open up a fresh debate.

“More and more people in the Labour party recognise now that no matter who their leader is, their chance of getting an outright majority at the next election is actually vanishingly small,” she said. “It’s in their interests to support electoral reform. That's the game changer.” 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.