Houses not covered by the coalition's Flood Re scheme could become uninsurable. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Labour is right: it’s the government’s duty to protect people from climate change

New Conservative Environment Secretary Liz Truss ahd her Lib Dem coalition partners need to be clear on how they will better protect Britain from climate change.

As torrential rains brought by Hurricane Bertha made yesterday the wettest day of the year yet, Labour made some welcome new commitments on climate change and flood defence policy.

Labour's shadow Environment Secretary, Maria Eagle, declared that “no sensible government can govern in these challenging times without putting tackling climate change at the core of what they do. Ed Miliband, Caroline Flint and I all understand that.”

Her speech outlined a new willingness to champion the role of government in protecting the public from damaging environmental change. Contrasting the coalition's record on climate change with Labour's approach, she stated: “The government believe in cutting the size of the state and letting people fend for themselves... [Labour] believes strongly in the duty of government to protect people, whether it be from floods caused by a changing climate or the threat of air pollution and to protect our environment.”

This is an important principle to establish. The coalition’s new flood insurance system, Flood Re, is designed to remove support for flood risk homes over time, and seeks to individualise risk by compelling those households most at risk to install protection for their own properties. Yet flood defences are a classic instance of “public good” spending – by pooling funds, we protect many households more efficiently and fairly than expecting everyone to effectively dig their own moats. After all, climate change is, in the words of Lord Stern, “the greatest market failure the world has seen”, with a clear case for government intervention.

Also welcome is Labour's fresh commitment to “produce a new plan for climate change adaptation, to replace Owen Paterson’s discredited National Adaptation Programme (NAP) which is not fit for purpose.” The existing National Adaptation Programme dodges the question of how climate change will affect Britain if we continue to burn fossils fuels at current rates, settling instead to cross its fingers and hope that we stay under 2 degrees of global warming. We all hope for that – but it's the job of government to prepare the country for the worst, not simply hope for the best. With the next NAP due for 2018 at the earliest, a more urgent assessment of the climate change risks facing the UK is also needed.

A third development is how Labour is now explicitly linking UK climate change impacts with government policy on emissions cuts and international climate diplomacy. This is spot-on – after all, the best form of insurance we've got against worse flooding in future is to make progress on cutting carbon domestically and globally. Maria Eagle's speech pledged to “make achieving a global deal in Paris to limit emissions a top priority”. The UN climate talks in Paris in December 2015 must deliver an equitable, binding, global deal for cutting greenhouse gas emissions and holding global temperature rise well below 2 degrees.

Lastly, Maria Eagle set out Labour's position on flood defence spending, stating that if Labour won the election it would “re-prioritise flooding as a core responsibility of Defra... As part of the Armitt Review, we will establish an Independent National Infrastructure Commission to identify the UK’s long-term infrastructure needs, which will include flood protection.” Again, this is encouraging – though it falls short of explicitly committing to invest in line with rising flood risk due to climate change. As the Committee on Climate Change has stated – and as Maria Eagle's speech pointed out – government underinvestment in flood defences plus climate change equals more homes put at flood risk: 82,500 homes over the next five years, to be precise.

Yesterday's announcements by Labour raise the bar for the new Conservative Environment Secretary Liz Truss and the Liberal Democrats to be clear on how they will better protect Britain from climate change. The central question for all the parties remains: when push comes to shove, will they commit to stopping over 80,000 homes from slipping into flood risk during the next Parliament - or stand by as rising tides wash over our crumbling defences?

Guy Shrubsole is energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may reaffiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that most firefighters are not Corbynites. The reaffiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.