Brown don't blow this green opportunity

Even the state of Kansas, whose adherence to scientific orthodoxy doesn’t always extend to embracing

“Prime Minister Brown, we cannot avert our eyes from the basic fossil fuel facts, or the consequences for life on our planet of ignoring these fossil fuel facts. If we continue to build coal-fired power plants without carbon capture, we will lock in future climate disasters associated with passing climate tipping points. We must solve the coal problem now.” That was Professor Hansen, a director of NASA and one of the world’s most eminent climate scientists, in a letter to Downing Street in December. His call was echoed by the Royal Society in April after Business Minister, John Hutton, ignored climate science and gave his personal backing for new unabated coal, historically the single biggest fossil-fuel source of CO2, in a speech to the Adam Smith Institute. No credible climate scientist now thinks that continuing to burn coal unabated is compatible with tackling climate change. It’s obvious the government needs to accept that new coal plants like the one proposed at Kingsnorth are not an option.

My organisation Greenpeace – together with WWF, Friends of the Earth and the RSPB – last week backed the introduction of tough new greenhouse gas emission performance standards for power stations, like those already introduced in California by arch-hippy Governor Schwarzenegger. These would rule out unabated coal and incentivise clean, renewable technologies to secure Britain’s energy needs. The Cameroonian think-tank, Policy Exchange, endorsed the idea and today the Conservatives announced that they agree with the principle of new standards too.

Whilst the grassroots climate activists who hijacked the train carrying thousands of tonnes of coal to Drax power plant this morning may disagree with the detail of Cameron’s announcement next Monday, it’s clear the rules of the game have changed when the environmental direct action movement and the Tories are united in saying that something needs to be done about coal – and for the same reasons. Equally, I’m sure the climate campers in Yorkshire this morning would agree with the conclusions of the cross-parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee who last week branded Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks “reckless” over his support for new unabated coal burning at Kingsnorth. The more polite ones, anyway.

Apart from the DUP, who remain open to persuasion, the Prime Minister is looking increasingly short of allies on this issue. A consensus is emerging between the Conservatives and Lib Dems, climate scientists, environment and development NGOs, and the grassroots movement. Even the state of Kansas, whose adherence to scientific orthodoxy doesn’t always extend to embracing evolution, has ruled out new coal on climate grounds. Britain’s claim to international leadership on climate change is starting to look a bit implausible.

As old power stations come to the end of the line, the Prime Minister is being offered a unique opportunity. Introducing green standards for power stations would get backing across the political spectrum and make Brown a genuine leader on clean energy.

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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