Ed Miliband addressing Labour Party Conference as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in 2009. Photo: Getty
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Leading on climate change must form an essential part of Labour’s foreign policy

It's one of the biggest political issues we have ever faced.

The context of the foreign policy of the next Labour Government will differ significantly from the last. With the drawdown from Afghanistan, for the first time in over decade the UK’s role in the world will not be primarily defined by a prolonged military engagement. As Ukraine and Syria show, international flashpoints are never far away, but with substantially reduced armed forces and the need to reflect on experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, the question will be where and how should the UK focus our considerable influence and resources?

One of the answers must certainly be in the UK leading international action to tackle climate change. Today’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) lays bare the scale of the task – climate change is already happening, it is set to get much worse, and there will be profound consequences for the UK and the world if action to mitigate it is not stepped up now.

The Paris Conference in December 2015 will therefore be a global summit of huge importance. It will provide an opportunity for the world’s leaders to reach agreement on a legally-binding treaty to ensure we have the ability to prevent a global temperature rise above 2 degrees. The success of this conference is vital, and the UK – under the leadership of Prime Minister Ed Miliband – could be pivotal in making that happen.

Much is made of the influence and diplomatic clout provided by the UK’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council, or as a principal nuclear power, but the influence and goodwill generated on the world stage by being in the vanguard of tackling climate change should not be underestimated. As the first country in the world to pass binding legislation to tackle emissions the UK has a great deal of credit in the bank – credit that, unfortunately, is beginning to be eroded by the increasingly agnostic view of the Coalition Government. Labour must restore and build on that.

What would success look like? An agreement that includes for the first time all of the major emitters and which contains quantified mitigation commitments and legally binding rules, including short commitment periods and regular reviews to avoid lock-in to low ambition. It will also need to address issues of finance, deforestation and climate adaptation. Many people worry that such a treaty is too difficult to achieve given the unlikelihood of any US President persuading the Senate to ratify an international treaty. But over the last year, under President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, there has been a fundamental shift in US attitudes to climate change. Though declining to ratify many treaties the US often does comply and the possibility exists for the US to take on commitments by Executive Order under the already ratified UNFCC Convention. It can also introduce new policies under the existing Clean Air Act even if new domestic legislation is currently difficult to achieve. The attitude of the US and what it does will invariably impact on the approach that China takes, but we should recognise that climate change, and related issues around air quality and environmental degradation, are issues that China’s leaders take extremely seriously.

The politics of this will naturally be challenging. Many perceive a conflict between addressing climate change and ensuring economic growth, or are concerned about the impact of low-carbon generation on the affordability of energy. But for the UK this agenda also represents an enormous opportunity for the future – we should remember that the green economy is one of the few areas where the UK currently has a positive balance of trade with China. It also brings with it a host of related benefits in terms of energy security, better housing, and greater sustainability for business. For countries where this will be more of a burden, however, the UK should use its considerable international aid resources to assist with their transition.

For a safe and prosperous future, and for a chance to engage a new generation in one of the biggest political issues we have ever faced, leading on climate change and the Paris Conference must form an essential part of Labour’s foreign policy during the next Government.

Jonathan Reynolds is the MP for Stalybridge and Hyde and a Shadow Minister for Energy and Climate Change.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses