Rio+20 and responsible capitalism: opportunities for Labour

We cannot rely on the market to create sustainable growth.

Next week, world leaders will meet in Rio de Janeiro to discuss how the global economy can tackle the joint challenges of global poverty reduction, social equity and environmental sustainability. The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development marks the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit: hence the popular short-hand, "Rio+20".

For environmentalists, Rio+20 is one of the most significant events to happen for a generation. But that's precisely the problem. As long as it remains the preoccupation of the green movement, Rio+20 will deliver only a fragile consensus that will ultimately fail.

The natural environment is fundamental to supporting and supplying the basis of economic value. Yet we do not consider the protection and enhancement of the natural environment is a strategic economic priority. Part of the reason for this is because our conventional model of economic growth values short-term return and wealth creation, rather than long-term productive wealth. While we may increase GDP in the short term, our conventional approach to economic growth can actually reduce a nation’s wealth.

Ed Miliband recognised these limitations in a speech to the Social Market Foundation last year where he told the audience that rules that encourage wealth creation focus on "short-term returns not the productive creation of long-term value". A major consequence is that resource consumption and the loss of ecosystems are treated as a benefit rather than a cost. And communities, co-operation and equality are undervalued in favour of creating conditions to maximise consumption.

An important challenge for Labour is now to translate Ed Miliband's vision for a "new economy" into a shared understanding of exactly what we want, and need, from the economy - and to be clear about the measures that will ensure that this can be achieved sustainably.

For many years there has been a lively debate about how the transition to a "green economy" will happen. However, no one has successfully managed to align the green economy with the everyday priorities of people, business and politics. Nor has anyone managed to set a pro-growth agenda that is also clear about the long-term productive value of a sustainable economy.

Most would agree that our expectations for the economy include job creation; competitiveness; the fair distribution of resources and wealth; fair and affordable access to food, water and energy; and enhanced biodiversity and ecosystem services. While these outcomes are complementary, much of the debate about our economic future has hitherto traded one aspect against another: green groups have one priority, business another, politicians another still.

Rio+20 provides a valuable political focus to continue work already underway on how Labour can address this. A question that the party might seek to answer is how we embed the three pillars of sustainable development - economic, social and environmental - into policy-making so that they become a natural by-product of the economy's total activities.

This would create huge economic opportunities for the UK - new green technologies, sustainable innovation, sustainability skills and sustainable investment products - all of which will also be instrumental in assisting emerging economies with the transition to a green economy.  

The Labour Party has a strong track record on the green economy. The world’s first Climate Change Act and the Climate Change Committee; the 2005 Sustainable Development Strategy with its recognition of the concept of environmental limits; the Sustainable Development Commission; the Commission on Environmental Markets and Economic Performance and the Low Carbon Industrial Strategy are all good examples of the Labour government's successes.

The party's approach in government was based on an understanding that policy and regulatory intervention is necessary to correct the market failure of un-priced environmental costs and benefits - thereby reconciling the free market economy with environmental sustainability. It understood that a strong and robust economic-environmental policy framework would also encourage finance and investment in low-carbon, resource-efficient business operations and supply chains.

Green conservatism of the sought advocated by David Cameron is flawed in this respect as it fails to reconcile the free market economy with environmental sustainability. It relies heavily on "environmental stewardship", which typically values the natural world only in terms of its contribution to human well-being. It leave the environment detached from and irrelevant to the wider economy.

As Chancellor, George Osborne has resurrected the age-old argument that we need to choose between economic growth and the environment - despite stating in 2009 that he had "always considered this to be a false divide" and that "economic growth and environmental sustainability can go hand in hand". He is the cheerleader for the outdated view amongst Tory MPs that the free market alone can satisfy the long-term needs of the economy.

For the reasons Miliband identified in his speech to the Social Market Foundation, an over-reliance on free markets - and their short-term priorities - is not a viable response to the challenges we face.

He has therefore been absolutely right to distinguish between "productive" and "predatory" capitalism. If it can underline the links between economic and environmental sustainability, Rio+20 will represent a valuable opportunity for the party to develop further examples of how it would tackle predatory capitalism.

It’s a chance to challenge the limitations of Tory economic orthodoxy. Most importantly, it’s a chance to start thinking about how the next Labour government can deliver long-term growth and sustainable wealth creation, while at the same time improving human well-being, creating jobs, ensuring fair and affordable access to resources such as water and energy, reducing inequalities, and tackling poverty.

Danny Stevens is an independent environmental policy and political consultant and a Labour councillor in Hackney.
Tristan Stubbs works on climate change and development policy at the Overseas Development Institute.

Terena indians dance around a Brazilian national flag during the opening of the Green Games as part of the UN Rio+20 environmental summit. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

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. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage