Labour’s Next Leader Must Be Able to Talk About Class and Climate Justice

by Chris Saltmarsh

2 January 2020

As the Labour party gears up to choose its next leader, members will make up their minds on who to support based on different criteria and priorities related to policy, personality and ideas for running the party. There’s one thing that should concern everyone with a stake in the leadership election though: the candidates’ attitude to climate change.  

Over the course of the next parliament, we will creep day by day deeper into the crucial ten year timeframe in which Labour had planned to decarbonise the economy. As that time passes, alongside the inevitable failure of Boris Johnson’s government to take action, we will begin to experience harsher climate shocks. There will be more frequent and severe flooding and wildfires at home and abroad. Devastating extreme weather events will become increasingly commonplace around the world, hitting the poorest hardest. 

Labour needs a leader comfortable stepping up to interpret these events, one who will lay blame at the feet of Johnson’s government and articulate a compelling socialist response. Reactionary forces will seek to capitalise on climate impacts. Eco-fascists will call for closing the borders and criminalising forced migration. Capitalists will seek to profit from green technologies and implausible techno-fixes while refusing to dismantle the fossil fuel industry. They will insist that ordinary people should take personal responsibility and subject themselves to eco-austerity for the crimes of billionaires. Labour must counter this by clearly drawing the links between climate impacts, class and inequality, and the denial and delay of Johnson’s government. 

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has created the space for a radical Labour party capable of responding in this way to the climate crisis. He will go down in history as a hero of our movement, but unfortunately as party leader he was unable to effectively communicate Labour’s message of class-oriented climate justice. Too often when asked about climate change he pivoted to his comfort zone of species loss and depleted biodiversity instead of railing against the corporations profiting from climate injustice and advocating what workers stand to gain from a green industrial revolution. When asked in Channel 4’s Climate Debate for his personal climate change resolution to cut his carbon footprint, Corbyn spoke about keeping the heating off in his home rather than pointing out that the premise of the question minimises the scale of the issue. 

Rebecca Long-Bailey on the other hand has already shown leadership on this for Labour over the last year. She has called for structural solutions while rubbishing calls for individual action that place more emphasis on the type of tomatoes you buy than industrial strategy and ownership in the economy. In her speech at Labour Conference 2019, Long-Bailey promised that Labour would “usher in a new period of public luxury based on social and climate justice”. In this regard she has laid down the gauntlet for all of Labour’s leadership candidates. Whoever the leader is, their biggest task will be articulating a majoritarian vision of climate justice where workers and deindustrialised communities win at the expense of billionaire polluters. 

Nailing climate communications must of course be backed up by a robust policy platform commensurate with the scale and nature of the crisis. For Labour’s next leader this has to involve upholding the ambition of Labour’s current climate policies born out of the Green New Deal won at Labour Conference 2019 and the green industrial revolution developed by Long-Bailey. They must also go further. The longer we leave decarbonisation the worse the climate impacts will become. As well as mitigation, Labour must now fully reckon with what adaptation to a changing climate will mean in a way that guarantees justice for workers, vulnerable communities and the poorest people in the UK and globally.

We will have to ramp up our ambition and the pace of our actions. The world is due for another financial crisis as we have not addressed any of the underlying elements of the global system which gave rise to the great recession of the 2000s. When the crisis hits, Labour’s leader must be ready to take it as an opportunity to advocate for a green new deal, massively scaling up investment to stimulate the economy, expanding democratic ownership to change the rules of the game and mobilising every corner of the economy to decarbonise.

As the climate breaks down, we need someone not just to lead the Labour party, but also to lead climate movement in the UK. Labour has the ideas and the organisation to breath life into a climate movement otherwise devoid of strategy and propositional vision. Labour’s green industrial revolution could frame the UK’s plan for climate justice extending beyond our borders in scope and uniting climate, social justice and trade union movements with shared goals. Much has been made of the need for progressive movements to look beyond parliamentary politics in our struggles between now and the next election. The Tories’ decisive majority makes this necessary. Labour’s next leader should have the experience productively engaging with movements to create the space for the party to incubate and support extra-parliamentary organising: from trade unions taking industrial action for green jobs and investments; to tenants unions demanding renters rights and green homes; and grassroots activists demanding public and private finance end their support for fossil fuel companies. 

All of this will lead us into the next election which is a must win. Labour’s next leader must be comfortable foregrounding climate in every policy area and putting it front and centre of the next election campaign. Labour’s 2019 election campaign failed to make a positive case for the party’s green industrial revolution. When voters choose who to put their X next to in the ballot box, they should be thinking about the climate crisis just as much as Brexit or anything else. Regrettably we didn’t make that the case when we had the historic opportunity in 2019. By 2024 it will be a very apparent matter of life and death. To win in the era of climate breakdown, Labour needs a climate leader. 

Chris Saltmarsh is a co-founder of Labour for a Green New Deal.


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