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The gathering storm

Climate change hits the poorest people hardest. Rich countries got us into this mess. Now they must

To fly above the islands on the Jamuna River in Bangladesh is to see, close up, the physical effects of climate change. Here is a set of islands literally sinking into the sea. Meeting the local villagers, it hits you: the argument that global warming ravages the world's poorest people more than anyone else is so much more than just a cliché.

The main island, which will disappear in the lifetime of many of its inhabitants, frequently suffers major floods, the worst of which was in 2007, leaving behind rapidly spreading disease, homelessness and starvation. Firoza Khatun, a 25-year-old mother-of-three, told me: "In 2007, the water came up to my waist. We tried to stay in the house, we raised our bed higher on bricks and bamboo, but when it came to my waist we had to leave . . . We saved the roof but lost the house. We only had food for five days. I was scared."

Before my trip with the Climate Change Secretary, Ed Mili­band, and the International Development Secretary, Douglas Alexander, I was shamefully in denial of this truth. Like others in a mercifully shrinking minority, I saw "climate change" - that technocratic, uninspiring term - as a second-order, middle-class preoccupation, somehow separate from poverty itself. But visit Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital city, and the link between the two becomes undeniable.

Thankfully, some progressive politicians have been quicker to recognise the importance of the environment to the social-democratic cause. In 2006, Ken Livingstone, guest editor of this issue of the New Statesman, warned in the Guardian: "I just do not think that politicians understand the implications, which at the very extreme is the end of most large life forms. If we slip into irreversible climate change, it means hundreds of millions of people migrating, and deaths. It means the poorest being hit the hardest."

Today, Labour ministers see climate change as a crucial part of their politics. As Alexander told me during our flight over Bangladesh: "I came into politics to change things . . . For our generation of progressive politicians, climate change is the defining test."

Alexander is helping Miliband in the seemingly impossible task of bridging the gap between a developed world (which must be forced to lead the way on carbon emissions cuts) and a developing world (which has often been reluctant to skip the conventional forms of industrialisation previously enjoyed by the west). As Miliband pointed out in Delhi, between 1850 and 2000, 30 per cent of carbon emissions came from the United States, 27 per cent from the European Union, and 7 per cent from China. There is a clear inequality of responsibility, but today the daunting task is to make the whole world carbon-conscious. NGOs talk of the west's "debt" to the developing world and Miliband accepts our "historic responsibility". On 10 September, the EU environment chief, Stavros Dimas, declared that rich countries should be paying €100bn a year by 2020 to cover the cost of mitigation in developing countries, with €15bn coming from the EU itself. It was the first time the EU had acknowledged the cost of global warming to poorer regions.

This is the backdrop to the negotiators' dilemma, just two months ahead of what Miliband has called the "make-or-break" UN summit in Copenhagen. The stakes could not be higher. The British ministers, moving on from Bangladesh to Delhi, emerged "optimistic" after successful talks with their Indian counterparts, particularly the new environment minister, Jairam Ramesh. On the same day, the Indians - assumed to be reluctant to commit to carbon cuts and hostile to US demands for them to do so - projected a modest level of carbon-dioxide emissions in 2031: between 2.8 and five tonnes per person. Current per capita emissions are estimated at 1.2 tonnes, well below the global average of four tonnes. India is now heading towards producing 20,000 megawatts of solar energy by 2020, and is skipping some of the usual steps towards industrialisation: in Kolkata, the ministers were shown the country's first ever housing complex run on solar power. Days later, hopes were raised further when another sticking-point country, Japan, announced that it would cut its emissions by 25 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020.

But Miliband, whose department is leading the way with a commitment to a 34 per cent reduction in the UK's emissions by 2020, warns against complacency. So does his brother David, the Foreign Secretary, who has been touring the EU presenting slideshows on the extreme potential results of global warming, and says that a deal "hangs in the balance". "There's a real danger the talks scheduled for December will not reach a positive outcome, and an equal danger in the run-up to Copenhagen that people don't wake up to the danger of failure until it's too late," the Foreign Secretary told reporters.

There is still a question mark over whether any proposed deal would be enough to make a difference. It has been agreed that the developed west must cut emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2020 to prevent a global warming increase of 2° or more. But campaigners warn that this may be too little, too late. The Committee on Climate Change has recommended that this target be increased to 42 per cent to ensure a 50-50 chance of preventing the rise. But as Tom Picken of Friends of the Earth asks: "Is this a morally acceptable level of risk?"

So, what would be the result of failure to reach an adequate deal when, according to Ed Miliband, there is "no plan B"? Campaigners have long emphasised how climate change hits the poorest hardest, even in Britain. A study by Oxfam and the New Economics Foundation think tank this year noted that the one in five Britons who live in poverty will be the most vulnerable to the impact of climate change. They will be the hardest hit by higher taxation on fossil fuels, the least able to afford adequate insurance against the effects of storm damage and flooding, and the most likely to lose out in the move away from carbon-producing jobs.

But it is the international imbalance that causes most concern. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is the latest organisation to call for a long-term programme of work on climate change and social justice. "Rich countries got us into this mess and they have the money and the technology to get us out of it," says Jeremy Hobbs, executive director of Oxfam International. "This gives them a double duty to deliver major emission reductions at home and provide the money that poor countries need to start tackling their emissions, too." As the UN has warned: "[I]t is the poor, a constituency with no responsibility for the ecological debt we are running up, who face the immediate and most severe human costs."

This is not simply a western, liberal concern. As Rajendra Pachauri, the Indian chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (who won a Nobel Prize along with the campaigning former US vice-president Al Gore) has said: "It's the poorest of the poor in the world, and this includes poor people even in prosperous societies, who are going to be the worst hit."

Now, in a letter to the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon, the UK Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development has warned that unless governments step up efforts to tackle climate change immediately, the result could be significant incursions into what it calls "future democratic freedoms". The organisation's director, Halina Ward, says: "There is a real risk that as the decision-making implications of huge social challenges like climate change begin to bite, politicians will be tempted to tighten the reins on our democratic rights and limit our access to public decision-making on difficult issues." She adds: "We have to get climate change out of the environmental margins and into the social mainstream . . . The sooner we come to understand it as an issue of democracy and of social justice, the better."

Meanwhile, the spectre of natural disaster looms largest over poor countries. The total number of floods, cyclones and storms has quadrupled in the past two decades. Over the same period, the number of people affected by disasters has increased from roughly 174 million a year to more than 250 million on average. Environmental threat is acute in countries such as Bangladesh, where 119 million of the population subsist on less than $2 a day. For them and millions of others, talk of climate change is not a fad or fashion, a label to help "modernise" a political party, or the subject of dinner-party self-justification; it is literally a matter of life and death. For their sake, long-standing green campaigners and late-coming progressive converts alike must pray for a deal in December.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Citizen Ken

BRIAN ADCOCK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Divided Britain: how the EU referendum exposed Britain’s new culture war

The EU referendum exposed a gaping fault line in our society – and it’s not between left and right.

There are streets in Hampstead, the wealthy northern suburb of London, where the pro-EU posters outnumber cars. A red “Vote Remain” in one. A “Green Yes” in another. The red, white and blue flag of the official campaign sits happily next to a poster from the left-wing campaign Another Europe Is Possible proclaiming that the world already has too many borders.

If you were looking for an equivalent street in Hull, in the north of England, you would look for a long time. In the city centre when I visited one recent morning, the only outward evidence that there was a referendum going on was the special edition of Wetherspoon News plastered on the walls of the William Wilberforce pub in Trinity Wharf. Most of the customers agreed with the message from the chain’s founder, Tim Martin: Britain was better off outside the European Union.

“Far too much Hampstead and not enough Hull” – that was the accusation levelled at the Remain campaign by Andy Burnham in the final weeks of the campaign. He wasn’t talking about geography; Remain’s voice is persuasive to residents of Newland Avenue in Hull, where I drank a latte as I eavesdropped on a couple who were fretting that “racists” would vote to take Britain out of the EU.

Rather, Burnham was talking about an idea, the “Hampstead” that occupies a special place in right-wing demonology as a haven of wealthy liberals who have the temerity to vote in the interests of the poor. The playwright and novelist Michael Frayn, in his 1963 essay on the Festival of Britain, called them “the Herbivores”:

“. . . the radical middle classes, the do-gooders; the readers of the News Chronicle, the Guardian, and the Observer; the signers of petitions; the backbone of the BBC . . . who look out from the lush pastures which are their natural station in life with eyes full of sorrow for less fortunate creatures, guiltily conscious of their advantages, though not usually ceasing to eat the grass.”

For Hampstead then, read swaths of Islington, Hackney, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Oxford today – all areas that were most strongly in favour of Remain and where Jeremy Corbyn is popular. But Remain never found a tone that won over the other half of Labour England; the campaign struck as duff a note among the diminishing band of pensioners on Hampstead’s remaining council estates as it did on Hull’s Orchard Park Estate.

The rift between “Hampstead and Hull”, in the sense that Andy Burnham meant it, is one that has stealthily divided Britain for years, but it has been brought into sharp focus by the debate over Europe.

Academics use various kinds of shorthand for it: the beer drinkers v the wine drinkers, or the cosmopolitans v the “left behind”. “It’s not just that [Britain] is div­ided between people who buy organic and people who buy own-brand,” says Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, “but between people who wouldn’t understand how anyone could buy own-brand and people who wouldn’t buy organic if you put a gun to their head.” Equating political preferences with shopping habits might sound flippant, but on 21 June the retail research company Verdict estimated that “half of Waitrose shoppers backed a Remain vote, against just over a third of Morrisons customers”.

The referendum has shown that there is another chasm in British politics, beyond left and right, beyond social conservatism v liberalism, and beyond arguments about the size of the state. The new culture war is about class, and income, and education, but also about culture, race, nationalism and optimism about the future (or lack of it). This divide explains why Ukip’s message has been seductive to former Labour voters and to Tories, and why Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian, led a campaign that purported to despise “elites” and “experts” and spoke of “wanting our country back”.

***

At the start of the campaign, the question that most accurately predicted whether you would back Remain or Leave was consistently: “Are you a graduate?” (Those who answered yes were much more likely to vote in favour of staying in the EU.) Stronger In never found a way to change that and win over those who left education at 18 or earlier. Pollsters also suggested that the much-vaunted Euroscepticism of older voters reflects generations where only one in ten people went to university.

This fissure has been growing for the best part of a decade and a half, but Britain’s first-past-the-post system, which deters newcomers and maintains entrenched parties, has provided a degree of insulation to Labour that its European cousins have lacked. Yet even here in the UK the mid-Noughties brought the brief rise of the British National Party, powered by voter defections from Labour in its strongholds in east London and Yorkshire, as well as the election of the Greens’ first MP on the back of progressive disillusionment with the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

In office, both Blair and Brown calculated, wrongly, that Labour’s core vote had “nowhere else to go”. In opposition under Ed Miliband, the party calculated, again wrongly, that discontent with immigration, and the rise of Ukip powered by that discontent, was a problem for the Conservative Party alone.

In a 2014 pamphlet for the Fabian Society, ­Revolt on the Left, the activist Marcus Roberts, the academic Rob Ford and the analyst Ian Warren warned that Labour had “few reasons to cheer about the Ukip insurgency and plenty to worry about”. When the votes were cast in the general election the following year, that prediction turned out to be dispiritingly accurate. Defections from Labour to Ukip led to Labour losing seats to the Conservatives in Gower, Southampton Itchen, Telford and Plymouth Moor View.

For the most part, however, first-past-the-post papered over the cracks in Labour’s broad coalition: cracks that, in the harsh light of the EU referendum, have become obvious. The divide isn’t simply one of class, or income. The social profile and culture of voters in Cumbria are no different from that of voters on the other side of the border – but Scots in the Borders backed a Remain vote while their English peers in the border areas opted for Brexit. Inhospitality towards Brexit proved a stronger indication of city status than a mere cathedral: Vote Leave generally found Britain’s great cities more difficult terrain than the surrounding towns and countryside.

The problem of the fracturing vote is particularly acute for the Labour Party, which for much of the 20th century was able to rely on the Herbivores. In concert with Frayn’s “less fortunate creatures”, they have been enough to guarantee Labour close to 250 seats in the House of Commons and roughly one-third of the popular vote, even in difficult years. But Britain’s EU referendum placed Hampstead and Hull on opposing sides for the first time in modern British political history.

It was Tony Blair who, in his final speech to the Trades Union Congress as Labour leader in September 2006, said that the new debate in politics was not left against right, but “open v closed” – openness to immigration, to diversity, to the idea of Europe. Driven by their commitment to openness, Blair’s outriders dreamed of reshaping Labour as a mirror of the US Democrats – though, ironically, it was Ed Miliband, who repudiated much of Blair’s approach and politics, who achieved this.

At the 2015 election Labour’s coalition was drawn from the young, ethnic minorities and the well educated: the groups that powered Barack Obama’s two election wins in 2008 and 2012. The party was repudiated in the Midlands, went backwards in Wales and was all but wiped out in the east of England. (Scotland was another matter altogether.) Its best results came in Britain’s big cities and university towns.

The Remain campaign gave Labour a glimpse of how Miliband’s manifesto might have fared without the reassuring imprimatur of a red rosette. Britain Stronger In Europe has been rejected in the Midlands and struggled in the east of England. But it also failed to inspire passion in Sunderland, Oldham and Hull – all areas that, for now, return Labour MPs.

***

In appearance, Hull’s city centre is built on blood and sandstone, dotted with memorials to a lost empire and postwar replacements for bombed buildings, all ringed by suburban housing built by the private sector in the 1930s and the state in the 1950s and 1960s. It could be Bristol without the excessive hills, or a smaller Glasgow with a different accent. Unlike in Glasgow or Bristol, however, the residents of Hull are largely hostile to the European Union. Unlike Glasgow and Bristol, Hull is a post-imperial city that has yet to experience a post-colonial second act.

The William Wilberforce is named after a native son who helped destroy the British slave trade, the engine of Hull’s prosperity in the 18th century. The destruction of another local industry – fishing – drives resentment among the pub’s ageing clientele, who were there for breakfast and a bit of company when I visited. They blame its demise squarely on the EU.

Although the Labour Party now has only one MP in Scotland, the back rooms of the labour movement host an outsized Scottish contingent. For that reason – and the continuing threat that the loss of Labour’s seats in Scotland poses to the party’s chances of winning a majority at Westminster – the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 loomed large for Labour throughout the EU campaign.

From the outset, Britain Stronger In struggled to replicate the success of the Scottish No campaign, in part because the price of victory was one that Labour regarded as too high to pay a second time. In Glasgow, in the week before the Scottish referendum, everyone knew where Labour stood on independence – consequently, many voters were already planning to take revenge. The proprietor of one café told me that Labour was “finished in this city, for ever”.

Predictions of this sort were thin on the ground in Hull. Alan Johnson, the head of Labour’s EU campaign, is one of the three Labour MPs whom Hull sent to Westminster in 2015. But even late in the campaign, in his own constituency, I found uncertainty about the party’s official position on the referendum. For that reason, if nothing else, it didn’t have the feeling of a city preparing to break with a half-century-plus of Labour rule, as Glasgow did in 2014. In Scotland, most people I spoke to believed that they were on the brink of independence, which made the eventual result a big blow.

Only among Hull’s pro-European minority could I find any conviction that Britain might actually leave the EU. In September 2014 Kenneth Clarke remarked that Ukip’s supporters were “largely . . . the disappointed elderly, the grumpy old men, people who’ve had a bit of a hard time in life”. To listen to Hull’s Leave voters is to hear tales of the same frustrated potential: they feel that politicians of all stripes have lives entirely removed from theirs. In their defence, they are right – just 4 per cent of MPs in 2010 were from working-class backgrounds.

As for Ken Clarke, he has carved out a second career as every left-winger’s favourite Tory, but that tone of indifference towards the “disappointed lives” of globalisation’s casualties recalls his younger days as a rising star of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Hull’s residents have been dismissed, first as the regrettable but inevitable consequence of Thatcherite economics, and now as small-minded opponents of social progress and racial diversity. Unsurprisingly, people who feel that their wishes have been ignored and in some cases actively squashed by successive governments of left and right did not expect to wake up on the morning of 24 June to discover that this time, their votes really had changed something.

Equally unsurprisingly, the Remain campaign’s warnings of economic collapse lacked force for people for whom the world’s end had been and gone.

In Glasgow in 2014 Scottish independence was a question of identity in itself, whereas in Hull, hostility towards Europe is the by-product of other identities that feel beleaguered or under threat: fishing, Englishness and whiteness, for the most part.

In Hampstead, a vote for Remain feels more like a statement about the world as you see it. One woman, who walks off before I can probe further, tells me: “Of course I’m voting to stay In. I buy Fairtrade.”

***

Immigration, not the European Union, is the issue that moves voters in Hull. “Britain is full” was the most frequent explanation they gave for an Out vote. Knowing that immigration, rather than the abstract question of sovereignty, would be crucial to winning the contest, Vote Leave tried from the beginning to make it a referendum on border control. Leave’s main theme: the threat of Turkey joining the European Union and, with it, the prospect of all 75 million Turks gaining the right to live and work in Britain.

Although Turkey’s chances of joining the EU are somewhere only just north of its hopes of launching a manned mission to Mars, the tactic worked: according to an ­Ipsos MORI poll released on the morning of 16 June, 45 per cent of Britons believed that Turkey will be fast-tracked into the Union.

That same morning, Nigel Farage posed in front of a poster showing refugees – mostly from Syria and most of them non-white – on the border between Croatia and Slovenia, with a slogan warning that uncontrolled immigration was leaving Britain at “breaking point”. But the row over the poster came to an unpleasant halt just a few hours later as news began to break that Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, had been shot and stabbed on her way out of a constituency surgery. She died of her injuries a little over an hour later. On 19 June Thomas Mair, who was arrested in connection with the killing, gave his name at Westminster Magistrates’ Court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.

The circumstances of the killing felt familiar. A little after midnight on 5 June 1968, Robert Kennedy was returning to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in high spirits. He had just won a crucial victory in the California primary and was well placed to secure the Democratic nomination to run in that year’s presidential election. Going through the kitchen in order to avoid cheering crowds and get straight to his press conference, he was ambushed by a man called Sirhan Sirhan, who fired six shots from a revolver. Kennedy was rushed to hospital, where he died early the following morning.

Five months later Richard Nixon was elected president. The American right held on to the White House for 20 years out of the next 25. Jo Cox’s killing, amid the nativist howling from Farage et al, felt like the beginning of a similar chapter of right-wing advance in the UK.

Labour’s problem, and that of its social-democratic cousins throughout Europe, is the same as the American left’s was in the 1960s. Its founding coalition – of trade unions, the socially concerned middle classes and minorities, ethnic and cultural – is united (barely) on economic issues but irrevocably split on questions of identity. Outside crisis-stricken Greece and Spain, the left looks trapped in permanent opposition, with no politician able to reconsolidate its old base and take power again.

***

When I arrive in Hull, preparations are under way for a vigil in Jo Cox’s honour, but it is the nation of Turkey that is weighing on the minds of undecided voters. On Park Street, residents are divided. Those who have exercised their right to buy and are concerned about their mortgages are flirting with an Out vote but are terrified about negative equity. Those who remain in social housing or the private rented sector are untouched by stories of soaring mortgages. To many residents, the Treasury’s dire warnings seem to be the concerns of people from a different planet, not merely another part of the country. As Rachel, a woman in her mid-fifties who lives alone, puts it: “They say I’d lose four grand a month. I don’t know who they think is earning four grand a month but it certainly isn’t me.”

As Vote Leave knew, the promise that an Out vote will allow people to “take control” always had a particular appeal for those with precious little control – of their rent, of next week’s shift, of whether or not they will be able to afford to turn the heating on next week. Never mind that the control envisaged by Vote Leave would be exercised by the conservative right: the campaign found a message that was able to resonate across class and region, at least to an extent that could yet create a force to be reckoned with under first-past-the-post in Britain.

Four grand a month isn’t a bad salary, even in leafy Hampstead, but in that prosperous corner of north London fears of an Out vote, and what will come after, gained a tight purchase. The worry was coupled with resentment, too, over what would come, should the Outers triumph.

The great risk for the left is that herbivorous resentment is already curdling into contempt towards the people of Hull and the other bastions of Brexitism. That contempt threatens the commodity on which Labour has always relied to get Hull and Hampstead to vote and work together – solidarity. The referendum leaves the Conservatives divided at Westminster. That will give little comfort to Labour if the long-term outcome of the vote is to leave its own ranks divided outside it.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain