The Tories, to the surprise of almost nobody, have begun to row back on the modest pledges they made in 2019 to tackle the climate crisis. They have done so not because the facts have changed but out of pure desperation.
The climate deniers on the Tory benches are feeling emboldened by the party’s victory in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election and the backlash there over the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez). A party set for electoral annihilation is grasping for a wedge issue.
We would be foolish, however, to simply blame the Tories for allowing what is an epochal issue to become the latest culture war. The climate debate features the same liberal voices who believed everyone in the country shared their enthusiasm for the European Union and decried those with an alternative view as ignorant or racist.
Working-class people and communities are once again being failed by a political system that serves only the wealthy or the middle-class. As usual, workers are treated with disdain by those who assume they have no interest in climate change and the push for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.
This is certainly not what I have found when talking to people in my Wansbeck constituency in the North East: allotment holders have noticed the seasons changing; people in poor-quality housing swelter during heatwaves; residents are affected by flash flooding and have to flee fires when they are on holiday. But while working-class communities are no less concerned than others, people are worried about the cost of the green transition and the impact on their livelihoods.
This week the government signalled that it would grant a hundred new North Sea oil and gas licences, sparking a huge furore. The move is clearly incompatible with our obligations on climate change and, while it will have almost no impact on global production and prices, those working in the industry are naturally concerned about the future. As someone who worked in the coal industry and who has lived in a community whose entire existence has been defined by coal, I know the dangers of a so-called just transition. Decades after the Conservatives butchered the coal industry, we are no closer to getting the jobs they promised us.
Campaign groups such as Just Stop Oil have dominated political discourse on the subject over the past year. While their cause is noble, their actions disproportionately impact working-class people. Their TV spokespeople are erudite and confident but there is a notable lack of working-class voices. The latter are more aware of the impact their actions may have on people struggling to put bread on the table and understand the harm arrest and prison terms may do to their career prospects, something well-connected, middle-class activists are less likely to consider.
The radical change we need in this country – both on the climate and the economy – can be achieved by harnessing the power of the working- and middle-classes in pursuit of a shared goal. That goal must be defined by both groups rather than, as so often, by the latter alone. Economic health, employment prospects and community regeneration must be at the heart of a just transition, funded by those with the broadest shoulders and those who profit from the fossil fuel economy. Trade unions should be closely involved in discussions, not only demanding that a proper industrial strategy is developed but helping to write it.
Moving away from a fossil-fuel economy and society is such a profound shift that it cannot be left to the market to achieve it. It will need big government and big spending, rather than forcing the working class to pick up the bill.
While polling shows that people are overwhelmingly in favour of reaching net zero by 2050, a majority believe we should only do so if we avoid additional costs for ordinary people. But an ideological opposition to the big polluters and the ultra-wealthy paying their fair share is distorting politics.
Renewable energy makes sense. Deploying the infrastructure for it at scale will create jobs and utilise skills from the oil and gas industry. It can also be at the heart of a progressive, patriotic, domestic agenda. With limited oil and gas reserves in the North Sea and limited storage capacity in the UK, additional licences will have no impact on the price of fuel for ordinary people. I simply cannot understand why the government wants to put itself at the mercy of foreign despots who can turn the taps off at any time, as we’ve seen throughout the war in Ukraine. Neither Vladimir Putin nor Mohammed bin Salman can turn the wind, tides, or sun off.
Last week I visited the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult in Blyth and saw a great example of how the transition could work with the right funding and industrial strategy. The facility was a fantastic achievement of the last Labour government, putting a highly complex and scientifically advanced test facility at the heart of a community riven by the closure of heavy industry and coal mining. While it does fantastic work now, with the right funding it could spawn thousands of local jobs and transform the wider local economy.
This is the time for ambition yet all we see is a failure of the government and too few people calling for the investment we need. Investing in net zero and mitigating against the worst impacts of climate change could be the biggest means in generations to bring investment into our communities. To fight the coming culture war on climate the Labour Party must be bold and go further than it has so far. We have no alternative but to grasp this opportunity, put the needs of working-class people first and send the bill to those who’ve made their money destroying our planet.
[See also: Keir Starmer will bury Blairism]