Generation Climate: Why Young Labour Must Support Every Youth Strike

by Chris Saltmarsh and Troy Hawkins

9 April 2019

Marx Dixon

In the wake of the 2017 general election, a hastily deleted poll conducted by the Tory-funded think tank Bright Blue revealed that climate change was ranked the number one issue for under 28s in the UK, trumping public service provision and the economy for the first time. Recent events have translated concern into action.

In February and March thousands of children from across the UK walked out of their classes. This was a defiant move against the government’s inaction over climate breakdown. They will strike again in April. Organised by UK Student Climate Network and UK Youth Climate Coalition, students are taking prodigious action in response to unprecedented climate shocks. 2019 has already seen the hottest February days on record and wild gorse fires in Edinburgh and Aberdeenshire.

The youth strikes have exemplified the instinctually radical politics of this younger generation. They a strong sense of justice and hostility to the companies and governments to blame for climate and social crises. While they take climate breakdown seriously and occasionally chant “fuck Theresa May”, socialism does not define their narrative or inflect their demands.

The parallels with the student uprising of the early 2010s are significant. Among the most radical elements back then were the further education students who took to the streets to demand their Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) remained intact. That moment led to UK Uncut and later the more youthful movement-oriented energies behind the Corbyn project. Similarly, there remains scope for the youth strikes to evolve strategically and ideologically.

The movement’s current demands reflect its distrust of representative politics and flattening of ‘the government’ as essentially inactive and crucially incontestable. There is a danger of returning to the folk politics that dominated movements from the late 1990s to Occupy. That scepticism of representative institutions inhibited the articulation of any demands. In asking what the climate strikers should avoid, George Monbiot, rightly asks why these movements lost. The youth strikes should not fall into the trap of privileging the immediate gratification of large mobilisations over strategy for long-term goals of social transformation.

That the youth strikes are made in the political image of the much-criticised political movement Extinction Rebellion (XR) illustrates the space left by an absence of left-Labour climate organising. XR’s demand for a Citizen’s Assembly to oversee climate action exemplifies their vacuity. Deferring the task of putting forward actual proposals for a just climate transition to a future assortment of random individuals is an abdication of  responsibility. The striking children need support to develop and advance a propositional suite of solutions to the climate crisis.

Where was Labour?

Where then was Labour amid the first round of strikes in February? We were initially unprepared and caught off guard by the spontaneity of this wave of action. In March, Young Labour groups in London and Oxford as well as the national committee joined the strikes. As the mobilisations continue, local Young Labour groups across the entire country should organise in solidarity to grow the strikes and capture the energy unleashed to bring activists into the labour movement. Young people are ahead of Labour on climate action and if we don’t catch up support for the left could wane.

Trust in the labour movement by the youth strikers needs to be earned. Especially as they have already begun to draw inspiration from traditional environmentalists for whom the Labour Party and unions have been perceived as hostile, and with good reason in light of the support given to Heathrow expansion by Unite the Union and many Labour MPs. Earning that trust must involve extending our practical solidarity to grow and amplify the youth strikes.

An opportunity for Young Labour. 

Young Labour is uniquely placed to work with the climate strikers. It is authentically ‘young’ and embedded in a tradition of both socialist politics and labour movement organising. By facilitating programs of political education; providing organising training; lending resources to organise mobilisations; and amplifying the success of the strikes, Young Labour can support them to take their action to the next level in strategy and political ambition.

Young Labour boasts over 100,000 members, most of whom are inactive. The relationship would be mutually beneficial. Local Young Labour groups can share skills, experience and resources while activating dormant members through the groundswell of energy for climate action. By supporting strikers to shift their demands leftwards, we might find ourselves with a new, enthusiastic mass-base to organise for a Green New Deal: a bold program of massive investment to decarbonise the entire economy and put power and wealth in the hands of the many.

More profoundly, this solidarity would bridge the divide between traditional environmentalism and the labour movement. Only through this kind of good faith, practical solidarity will the movements come together as is necessary to adequately confront the fossil capitalists responsible for climate crisis.

The question isn’t whether the Labour left has the capacity to organise around climate breakdown. Our provocation is: can we afford not to? This is a crucible moment for the future of the labour movement and our climate futures. Young Labour must lead on supporting the upcoming #youthstrike4climate.

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