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The big green challenge

Community enterprises, with their roots in co-operatives and credit unions, are now emerging as powe

December is a landmark month for climate change action, triggering the start of Britain’s response to reducing carbon emissions.

This week, the newly formed Climate Change Committee is publishing recommendations for the first of three carbon budgets, five-yearly greenhouse gas reduction targets that will set the country on course to cut emissions by at least 80 per cent by 2050. This is a huge challenge, and in order to achieve the targets, the Government will need to stimulate environmental innovation on a mass scale.

The Government’s first task will be to untangle the series of obstructions that exist in the practical delivery of renewable energy. For example, wind turbine producers are overwhelmed by demand, which is pushing up costs; major infrastructure projects are subject to expensive planning delays and there’s a serious shortage of skills. Government intervention at these key stress points needs to be a priority in order to realise the renewable energy targets.

But in addition, Government must engage the largest untapped resource in the country: community groups. Environmental change on a mass scale requires the involvement of the masses. Local communities, delivering their own renewable energy and fuel poverty solutions are some of the most powerful, but often overlooked, agents in the fight against climate change.

Many large, top-down infrastructure projects tend to isolate rather than engage these communities, who feel aggrieved about a lack of control over projects that will affect, but may not benefit them. There is also little incentive for them to come up with their own grassroots solutions. Whilst grants exist to raise climate change awareness, there are few available for delivering community-scale energy and service projects. New relationships between the Government, communities and energy services are required, and more flexible and responsive funding mechanisms are essential in encouraging the development of local climate change solutions.

The power of communities has been evident since the creation of co-operatives and building societies in the late 18th century. These models of innovation and social transformation, which have retained their mutuality, are some of the few institutions now left standing firm in the wake of the financial crisis. Community enterprises, with their roots in co-operatives and credit unions, are now emerging as powerful models for environmental innovation to combat climate change, overcome fuel poverty and take a key role in the future development of a sustainable green economy.

The success of NESTA’s Big Green Challenge shows what communities can achieve with the right support. After more than 350 submissions were received, 10 community groups are now in the final stages of the competition for a £1 million prize that will be awarded to the most successful climate change project.

Contenders include a group of local residents in Oxford who are creating a new type of mutual green renewable society to fund solar, water and wind projects that will provide power for 140 homes, and a Welsh initiative to restore decommissioned hydroelectric systems to reduce carbon emissions and cut household fuel bills.

A low-carbon future is within sight, but real climate change will only be achieved if the Government recognises the role of community-led action in propelling the UK towards a sustainable future.

Jonathan Kestenbaum is CEO of NESTA - National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts

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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