Humbug 'til the end

How Tony Blair's foreign farewell tour contributed 600 tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere, writes the G

So Blair is on his way at last. I must admit that even though I know nothing will be different on my first post-Blair dawn, I do feel a sense of relief at seeing the back of him. But until then, he’s been saying goodbye, and what a long goodbye it’s been.

Blair’s farewell tour has taken in four continents and about four hundred self-congratulatory photocalls. In the past six weeks he’s been to the USA, Kuwait, Iraq, Libya, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Germany, Belgium and Italy. We’ve watched his premiership being praised by everyone from Nelson Mandela to the Pope in Rome.

The purpose of the trip is obvious. Blair and his PR chiefs want him to go out on a high, and he wants to polish up his CV for all those post-PM jobs. Parading him around the world stage, showing him pressing flesh with celebs and world leaders is the ideal way to demonstrate what Blair is perceived - outside the UK at least - to be good at.

Of course a tour of the UK, reflecting upon the last ten years with the people who put him in office would have been a disaster. A six-week gauntlet of heckling by public sector workers with below-inflation pay rises, students suffocated by debt and angry residents blighted by new roads and runways would have been more honest but wouldn’t have pleased the spin doctors. No, much better to send him off abroad than let him face the people he’s responsible to.

On Blair’s penultimate day as PM, his final press conference was a joint effort with Arnold Schwarzenegger. The subject was one of Blair’s favourites – climate change. Yet again we heard him say it was his top priority. “We need to tackle climate change at every level,” he said.

But on this subject probably more than any other, Blair’s rhetoric and the facts on the ground are miles apart.

To see where his real priorities lay over the past decade, don’t read the speeches, look at where he has been spending our money. If Blair really did take global warming seriously, he would have made sure we were investing in tackling it, not backing plans that are guaranteed to increase our emissions.

To give just one example, the amount being spent widening the M1 from Luton to Leeds dwarfs the amount spent on renewable energy. The Low Carbon Buildings Programme of £80 million for renewable energy in homes and communities is less than one sixtieth of the £5.1 billion committed to one road. In every sector - road transport, aviation, energy efficiency and renewable energy - the climate rhetoric has not been matched with the policies we need. No wonder the UK’s emissions have risen not fallen since he took over.

And the farewell tour itself seems to mirror the hypocrisy of Blair’s climate policies. As if trying to fulfil his plan to double aviation in the next 25 years all by himself, the carbon footprint of Blair’s final months is astounding.

Covering more than 34,000 miles in eight trips abroad, largely in private jets chartered at the public’s expense, he and his entourage have emitted around 600 tonnes of carbon dioxide. The average person in Britain emits around ten tonnes a year – too much still, but sixty times less than Blair managed in less than two months.

There has never been anything humble about Blair, and the grandiose posing of his final weeks perhaps sums up his premiership rather well. For all his fine words on the threat posed by climate change, he clearly doesn’t believe that the limits of the world’s resources apply to the likes of him.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times