Not green at all

Sian Berry gives the Green Party reaction to the budget

So, what happened? Trailed (yet again) as a green budget from Brown, I blinked and nearly missed it.

Having had five months to digest the implications of the Stern Review, with its overwhelming message of 'invest now to save economic and environmental crisis later' you would think we might have seen some weighty green measures being announced today. But, once more, we were frustrated.

Brown's budgets have not increased green taxes as a proportion of overall taxation since 1999. Since then, the percentage has dropped from over 9% to reach just 7.3% last year. This budget they finally rose again, but the quick-fingered BBC have calculated they will be just 7.5% as a result. Hardly a radical shift in a green direction.

The few specific measures included in today's speech are too minor to make the cuts we need in our greenhouse gas emissions, and the sad thing is the Chancellor knows it.

The new £400 top rate on gas-guzzling, band G cars (starting at just £300 this year) flies in the face of the government's own research on what will affect people's choice of car. They commissioned MORI in 2003 to find out how Graduated Vehicle Excise duty should be structured to be a proper green tax. The results showed that the differences between bands needed to be £300 each to affect even 72% of drivers. This indicates a top rate of at least £1800, assuming you start at zero.

Brown's half-hearted tinkering with GVED shows there is a really important point he just doesn't get. Green policies have to have a purpose beyond generating headlines, and 'green taxes' have to be based on evidence they will change people's behaviour and reduce carbon emissions – or they are just 'taxes'. Brown's new GVED rates will collect an extra £100 from a lot of 4x4 drivers but are unlikely to have any effect on whether they buy another one next year.

And of course we saw no sign of a return to the fuel duty escalator, the scrapping of which in 1999 is estimated by Friends of the Earth to be responsible for an extra 14 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2005. Instead we got an inflation-level 2p on petrol, which will change nothing.

Before the budget, Greens called on Brown to sort out the chaos in renewable energy policy, exemplified by (though not confined to) the farce of the Low Carbon Building Programme household renewable grants running out within days or hours every month since Stern. On 1 March the £500,000 monthly pot ran out within 75 minutes of going on line. Today, Brown increased the LCBP fund by 50%, which is nowhere near enough and will presumably give people about an extra half an hour to get their applications in next month.

Even these grants only cover the 'can pay' sector – those who can cover the rest of the cost of solar panels or turbines up front. We have proposed a government scheme of cheap, inflation-linked loans, along the lines of the Student Loan system, to help the rest of us. However, unsurprising in a budget that sold off £6 billion of student loans to the private sector, Brown only mentioned he was 'consulting with banks and building societies' on financing home efficiency.

I don't know if I can even bear to comment on the new 'tax breaks' given to those who export electricity from home renewables. Looking at the average capacity of the 2,280 domestic solar electricity systems in the UK, and 400 micro wind turbines (and the low price paid by electricity companies for exports) we estimate each will save a princely £11 or £12 in income tax thanks to this measure. The total cost to the Treasury? A risible £35,000.

The Green Party's 'carbon-costed' budget, released on Monday, would have saved 55 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2007/8 alone using radical, evidence-based green taxes, tempered for the poorest with immediate improvements in public transport, as well as steep increases in pensions, tax credits (extended to all, not just those with children) and child benefit.

In contrast, Brown's budget promises to save just 16 million tonnes of carbon, and even this is likely to be an overestimate, not to mention that the measures announced will take effect over the next 2-10 years. Our budget figures showed that simply returning petrol prices to where they would have been under the fuel duty escalator would save more carbon in a year than Brown's whole programme announced today.

Our verdict? Not inspiring, not prudent and - if an immediate 3% rise in British Airways' share price is anything to go on - not green.

More on the budget

Is Brown beginning to look leaden footed?
Tory A-lister Kwasi Kwarteng gives his response to Gordon Brown's final budget which he sees as rather austere

The budget will exacerbate inequality
John McDonnell who wants to challenge Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership gives his reaction to the chancellor's final budget

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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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