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  1. The Staggers
26 July 2023

Labour is an ultra-low ambition zone

The politics of “carbon guilt” will never resonate with working people.

By Ashley Frawley

Labour’s unexpected loss in the Uxbridge by-election on 20 July has been widely interpreted as a rejection of London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s plans to expand the so-called Ultra Low Emissions Zone (Ulez). Londoners in all boroughs would be required to pay a daily rate of £12.50 to drive in the city if their cars do not meet certain emissions standards. The move has been criticised for negatively impacting working people. Shift workers, for example, might end up paying twice, and those whose work involves transporting materials across the capital would also end up paying more than other commuters. The voters of Uxbridge were not having it. Nor should anyone.

Within this political debate lies a much deeper tension between economic justice and climate justice. Do we take risks and pursue ambitious nationwide investments to decarbonise the economy, or do we turn inward and consume a little less, curtail economic activity and advocate small-scale, local-based projects for making our societies more sustainable? Caught in the middle of this tension, the Labour Party will interpret the by-election result as the need to restrain their thinking on climate strategies. Speaking to an American colleague on the left, I tried to explain the meaning and significance of Ulez. He initially thought I said, “Ultra Low Ambition Zone”. This is closer to the truth of the Labour Party under Keir Starmer, which has already reneged on its £28bn-a-year green prosperity plan.

[See also: Revealed: Labour’s Ulez miscalculation]

It doesn’t have to be this way. Transitioning to a greener and more abundant world can and should be done with the working class, not on their backs. Confronting climate change and achieving economic justice must be complementary goals. As Matthew T Huber writes in Climate Change as Class War (2022), the struggle to upend fossil capital and create an ecologically stable future is really a struggle over industrial production. Those who advocate for “environmental justice” pursue the low ambitions of “just stop” – oil, driving, desiring – or agitate for degrowth and deindustrialisation, which will only mean austerity, job losses and declining living standards for working people. Focusing on production rather than consumption, and rejecting the inherent moralism of degrowthers, those proposing economic justice offer a much more realistic exit route from our crisis-conjuncture. Solving climate change will require large-scale industrialisation, drawing on the skills of industrial workers to, for instance, develop nuclear power plants, geothermal production and ways to decarbonise the air using existing technologies that inject carbon into geological depositories.

Instead of these technologically bold solutions, we get a politics of what Huber calls “carbon guilt” which places consumers at the heart of environmental destruction. According to this perspective, it is not capitalism nor the fossil fuel giants that are polluting the planet, but the everyday choices of ordinary people. It is a guilt that is felt particularly strongly by the professional classes, who jet around the world, seeking absolution for their political sins by agitating for lower living standards and less freedom for the rest of us. Not only does “carbon guilt” deflect attention from the much deeper drivers of climate change, it is also a political message that offers no real inspiration. No one gets out on a picket line demanding their bosses pay them less. And no one is driven to the ballot box by demands for “limits” – except to send a message that there should be fewer. As Huber writes, “make no mistake: a politics of ‘less’ and ‘limits’ has no resonance for the vast majority of people already living precarious and insecure working class lives”.

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And yet such guilt-driven policy, exemplified by Ulez’s demand for cleaner air on the dwindling dimes of the working class, simply will not die. Confronting climate change and achieving economic justice can go hand in hand. Yet Labour appears reticent about grappling with this tension. Recent discussions regarding Labour’s headline policies – its five “missions” – have led people to ask what the party is actually for beyond, as the political theorist Roberto Unger has put it, implementing “the proposal of their conservative adversaries with a humanising discount”.

Instead of eco-austerity, Labour must offer a vision of the future that is more politically inspiring to the ordinary person tired of being targeted by endless policies for “behaviour change”. Instead of telling people to drive less, we could subsidise electric cars. Instead of telling them to turn down their radiators, we could be building greener homes. But the costs of making life better are apparently far greater than making it worse. Better to make small changes with small costs – costs just small enough to be borne by the average person but big enough to make their lives impossible. Climate justice can mean economic justice.

[See also: The Tories just want to watch the world burn]

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