Green social democracy can rescue capitalism from itself

A growing number of businesses recognise that their self-interest is best served by an economy that is not fatally undermined by climate change.

We are living through not one but two crises of capitalism. The first one – the economic crisis which has followed the financial crash of 2008 – everyone knows about. The second is less familiar. This is the crisis of the global environment.

A crisis of capitalism occurs when the dynamics and forces of the system build up costs and risks to such an extent that they end up undermining themselves, creating a self-perpetuating spiral which can only be escaped through state intervention – by governments effectively saving capitalism from itself. 

This is of course precisely what has happened in the economy since 2008. An unsustainable boom in lending and credit, driven by a huge expansion of the financial sector, led to an asset price bubble and subsequent collapse, followed by a retrenchment in spending, leading to loss of output and rising unemployment. The slump into which these events pushed the economy could only be escaped via massive state intervention – initially in bailing out the banks, and then in huge injections of demand, first fiscal (stimulus) then monetary (quantitative easing), a process which is still not complete in any of the major western economies. 

The environmental crisis is now of the same kind. This is most obviously the case in respect of climate change. It is now clear that the global economy cannot continue to burn fossil fuels as its main source of energy: the carbon embodied in them, if released into the atmosphere, will cause changes to the climate not seen since the last ice age. As the Stern Report showed, even leaving aside the human cost, the economic losses caused by such events would be equivalent in this century to the cost of the two world wars and Great Depression of the last. In its continued investment in fossil fuels, capitalism is undermining itself. 

But the crisis is wider than this. If we look at world food and energy prices over the last six years, in 2008 both spiked, then nosedived as the financial crisis took an axe to demand. But since then, while global economic growth has recovered only slowly, food prices have risen back above their 2008 peak, and oil prices are today above $100 a barrel. Why? Because supply cannot keep pace with demand. The environmental crisis now is not just one of excess pollution, but of inadequate supply of resources – the inability of the global environment under present economic conditions to provide enough energy, food and other commodities to meet demand at stable prices.  In the past, environmental costs were largely imposed on the economic periphery – air pollution in poor urban areas or the destruction of rainforests. No more. Now resource scarcity is affecting prices right at the heart of the global economy.

In this sense, the environmental crisis must now – finally – be regarded not merely as a crisis of ecosystems, or of human values, but as a crisis of capitalism, in the sense that the dynamics of capitalist growth are now undermining themselves.

In the face of this new reality, the left needs to enlarge its understanding of both capitalism and social democracy.

Modern social democracy came into being in the 20th century to manage a capitalism which was unable to manage itself. When the financial crisis of 1929 hit, capitalism fell into a slump and could not get out of it without state support – in the US through Roosevelt’s New Deal, in Europe through rearmament and ultimately war. After 1945, social democrats rescued this failing capitalist system from itself by creating welfare states, secondary and tertiary education and national health systems, through strong trade unions and Keynesian fiscal and monetary policy.

Once again it is only governments which can rescue capitalism from the slump into which it has fallen. But the traditional social democratic programme will now not be enough. Today we also need to manage the environmental impacts of a system rapidly destroying the foundations on which it rests. 

In the past this would not have been easy. Traditionally the left saw environmental protection as a luxury which could only be afforded once wealth had been generated.  Environmental policies which imposed costs on industry risked damaging growth and destroying jobs. Environmentalism was a minority middle class movement, with no economic interests underpinning its politics. 

But that is no longer true. Today the most powerful voices in favour of environmental protection are arguably not the traditional green NGOs but the major corporations in the rapidly growing green economy. The UK’s share of this market is the sixth largest in the world, at nearly 4 per cent. Now worth over £120bn, the UK sector is itself growing at around 4 per cent per annum – one of the few major sectors currently doing so. It already sustains just under a million jobs. 

This change in the economics of environmental protection is of vital importance to social democrats. For it changes the politics. 

When social democracy rescued 20th century capitalism from itself it did so through a powerful coalition of forces. At its base was the working class, organised through trade unions and social democratic and labour parties. But critical too was the support of a significant proportion of the business community, and the middle classes who worked in it.  The business class by no means universally supported social democratic parties and governments in the post-war period, but enough of them split apart from their ideologically backward-looking peers to create decisive support for the Keynesian programme and the creation of the welfare state. Yes, this involved giving a larger share of their profits to the workers and to the state in taxes; but the benefits in terms of the growth of demand for the goods and services they produced more than outweighed the cost.

Exactly the same phenomenon is happening now over environmental policy. The traditional business view can still be heard – such policy is bad for business, growth and jobs. But it is now matched by the voice of businesses who will benefit from it, and who understand that their self-interest is best served by an economy that is not fatally undermined by rising resource prices and the impacts of climate change.

So just as social democrats in the 20th century forged a cross-class, cross-industry coalition in favour of the welfare state, so social democrats today need to forge a comparable alliance in favour of the environmentally-based economy. Green politics is no longer simply about a middle class environmental movement: it is now joined by powerful economic interests. Social democrats have to learn from how they built the welfare state economy in the 20th century in order to do it again for the green economy of the 21st.

Michael Jacobs is visiting professor in the Department of Politics at University College London and author of The Green Economy: Environment, Sustainable Development and the Politics of the Future (Pluto Press)

A longer version of this piece appears in the current edition of Fabian Review

Drax power station in north Yorkshire, the largest coal-fired station in western Europe. Photograph: Getty Images.

Michael Jacobs is visiting professor in the Department of Political Science / School of Public Policy at UCL and at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics. He is co-editor of the Political Quarterly

Photo: Getty
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Shadow Scottish secretary Lesley Laird: “Another week would have won us more seats”

The Labour MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath on the shadow cabinet – and campaigning with Gordon Brown in his old constituency.

On the night of 8 June 2017, Lesley Laird, a councillor from Fife and the Labour candidate for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, received a series of texts from another activist about the count. Then he told her: “You’d better get here quick.”

It was wise advice. Not only did Laird oust the Scottish National Party incumbent, but six days later she was in the shadow cabinet, as shadow Scottish secretary. 

“It is not just about what I’d like to do,” Laird says of her newfound clout when I meet her in Portcullis House, Westminster. “We have got a team of great people down here and it is really important we make use of all the talent.

“Clearly my role will be facing David Mundell across the dispatch box but it is also to be an alternative voice for Scotland.”

At the start of the general election campaign, the chatter was whether Ian Murray, Labour’s sole surviving MP from 2015, would keep his seat. In the end, though, Labour shocked its own activists by winning seven seats in Scotland (Murray kept his seat but did not return to the shadow cabinet, which he quit in June 2016.)

A self-described optimist, Laird is calm, and speaks with a slight smile.

She was born in Greenock, a town on the west coast, in November 1958. Her father was a full-time trade union official, and her childhood was infused with political activity.

“I used to go to May Day parades,” she remembers. “I graduated to leafleting and door knocking, and helping out in the local Labour party office.”

At around the age of seven, she went on a trip to London, and was photographed outside No 10 Downing Street “in the days when you could get your picture outside the front door”.

Then life took over. Laird married and moved away. Her husband was made redundant. She found work in the personnel departments of start-ups that were springing up in Scotland during the 1980s, collectively termed “Silicon Glen”. The work was unstable, with frequent redundancies and new jobs opening, as one business went bust and another one began. 

Laird herself was made redundant three times. With her union background, she realised workers were getting a bad deal, and on one occasion led a campaign for a cash settlement. “We basically played hardball,” she says.

Today, she believes a jobs market which includes zero-hours contracts is “fundamentally flawed”. She bemoans the disappearance of the manufacturing sector: “My son is 21 and I can see how limited it is for young people.”

After semiconductors, Laird’s next industry was financial services, where she rose to become the senior manager for talent for RBS. It was then that Labour came knocking again. “I got fed up moaning about politics and I decided to do something about it,” she says.

She applied for Labour’s national talent programme, and in 2012 stood and won a seat on Fife Council. By 2014, she was deputy leader. In 2016, she made a bid to be an MSP – in a leaked email at the time she urged Labour to prioritise “rebuilding our credibility”. 

This time round, because of the local elections, Laird had already been campaigning since January – and her selection as a candidate meant an extended slog. Help was at hand, however, in the shape of Gordon Brown, who stood down as the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in 2015.

“If you ever go out with Gordon, the doors open and people take him into their living room,” says Laird. Despite the former prime minister’s dour stereotype, he is a figure of affection in his old constituency. “People are just in awe. They take his picture in the house.”

She believes the mood changed during the campaign: “I do genuinely believe if the election had run another week we would have had more seats."

So what worked for Labour this time? Laird believes former Labour supporters who voted SNP in 2015 have come back “because they felt the policies articulated in the manifesto resonated with Labour’s core values”. What about the Corbyn youth surge? “It comes back to the positivity of the message.”

And what about her own values? Laird’s father died just before Christmas, aged 91, but she believes he would have been proud to see her as a Labour MP. “He and I are probably very similar politically,” she says.

“My dad was also a great pragmatist, although he was definitely on the left. He was a pragmatist first and foremost.” The same could be said of his daughter, the former RBS manager now sitting in Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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