Home is where the heart is: An English politics of nature

A month before the EU referendum vote, I sat down to write an essay about how a love of place, cemented through memory, can be one of the most powerful and beautiful forces in our lives.

I argued that in forgetting or disavowing our attachment to place, the environment movement had become estranged from many of its natural supporters – including those living in the countryside, and the worse off in society who bear the brunt of bad housing and poor air and have little or no access to green spaces.

The reality of that estrangement could not have appeared more stark than on the morning of 24th June, when it became clear that the country had voted to leave the European Union.

For the green movement, the vote was a major blow – leaving many feeling that decades of work to protect nature, public health and the climate were now at risk. But whilst that sense of hurt is understandable, giving it expression by attempting to challenge the legitimacy of the result, or blame leave voters, will serve neither us nor the country well.

Leave voters did not vote for shoddier housing, dirtier air or less wildlife. But neither did we offer them a shared language or a shared sense of endeavour, around which we could come together. And as long as we are staring at our fellow countrymen and women across a cultural chasm, we will all lose.

I now believe more passionately than ever, that it is through the recovery of a more generous politics of place here in England that we can begin to bridge the gap. The left has neglected a love of family, home, work and country that is central to most people’s lives. We need to try to imagine an Englishness that speaks to our past, whilst involving everyone in owning and shaping our future. The urgency of doing so is now startling. The pleasures and rewards are yet to come.

Thatcherism and the death of the post-war conservation movement.

The division that became so obvious during the referendum campaign has in reality been decades in the making. To understand it we need to go back to 1979.

I was 12 years old and until then had lived most of my life in a condition of magical intimacy with my surroundings, tightly bound to the square mile or so that encompassed my friends’ houses, our school, the sweet-shop, and the fields and streets where we played.

It was a world experienced at a height of four foot (or more if we climbed a tree) and filled with bright detail. But beyond this miniature kingdom trouble was brewing. I can recall the chilly exoticism of evenings lit by candles during the three day week and the unease that possessed the country as it struggled with economic stagnation and industrial unrest. As the general election neared, dread engulfed me. I had a feeling that something enormously important was ending. Until that moment perhaps it had been possible to believe we were a country with a sense of common purpose – that post-war solidarity was still alive. With the election of the Thatcher government, and the implicit declaration of industrial civil war, it died.

Bitter strife followed, dividing north from south, police from civilians, workers from employers and financiers, town from country. For those who lost their jobs it was a disaster. It was only later, though, that the cultural impact of this schism was fully understood, as the habits, traditions, values and contribution of millions of English people were buried; not just by the economic policies of the 1980s, but by the response of the modern left.

Looking through the lens of environmentalism offers an insight into this wider story, because the trends that influenced green politics also contributed to the crisis of trust that now exists between Labour and its potential voters. These trends help to explain the reluctance of the progressive left to embrace and shape a resurgent sense of Englishness.

Losing the English people

As we lurched into the 1980s the land itself became a battleground. Agricultural intensification was changing rural England beyond recognition. Hedges – the bones and sinews of our countryside – were being grubbed out. Walking through the fields at this time was a hazardous business, with crops sown to within an inch of every footpath and bathed in a mist of chemicals that made your eyes water. Green lanes and paths of custom going back thousands of years were blocked or went under the plough.

Alongside the growth of this prairie agriculture, other iconic battles raged between conservationists and the government. Road schemes proliferated. The Twyford Down section of the M3 desecrated one of loveliest hills in southern England and the infamous Newbury bypass cut through 120 acres of woodland.

The response was varied, and sometimes included direct physical opposition. The anti-roads movement was perhaps the closest thing we had to an authentic, place-based politics of resistance, uniting concerned residents with artists and activists. Its protests had an anarchistic joy, manifested in the take-over of major highways, but for all their creativity  they remained mired in the wider problems of the left at the time. They struggled to connect with mainstream society and were viewed with suspicion by more socially conservative and reticent parts of the Labour movement.

Conservation bodies were painfully ill-equipped to respond to the crisis. The Nature Conservancy Council, established by Royal Charter in 1949 to protect Britain’s wildlife and special places, took on Mrs Thatcher over tree planting in the Scottish peat-lands and lost.  We have never again had such a clear-sighted constitutional champion of nature. Nor did the numerous amateur natural history societies fare any better. I can remember looking out over a desolate Northamptonshire field one summer’s day and cursing the silent army of botanists and birders who cared enough to record the destruction of the countryside, but not to fight back.

My response was, I suspect, characteristic of many who later came to shape the New Labour project. The only things that seemed to matter anymore were money and the law. Long established customs, unwritten contracts, conservation delivered through benign neglect – all that was over. The free-market was at the gate. The public was disinclined to wrap itself in the flag of international socialism. We needed a modern, rational environmentalism. We didn’t need love, we needed numbers.

Environmentalism in the new century: A flight from the politics of place

And so the contemporary green movement began to take shape. Conservationists like me embraced New Labour with alacrity. We developed an Action Plan for biodiversity with an attendant plethora of targets. The plan itself had some very impressive results. But almost by its very nature, it was indifferent to place. It didn’t matter ultimately where you provided the 2.5 bitterns per hectare as long as you met your KPI.

And whilst conservation became more professional, green activism became more international. Environmentalists united with economic justice campaigners to protest about the impacts of globalisation. Then climate change rapidly emerged as a colossal threat to the life chances of future generations and of millions of people in the developing world. The zeal of green groups was directed against fossil fuel production and consumption. Less time went into protecting local water or air quality, or safeguarding green spaces – not least because our membership of the European Union meant that we could take some basic protections for granted, rather than having to fight for them at a national or local level.

I am in no doubt whatsoever about the urgency of tackling climate change and the need for sustained international co-operation to do so. I also believe that the quality of our environment was greatly improved through our membership of the EU. Yet I also worry that this collective shift in perspective left us with too little to say to people about the importance of place and the wonder of nature; or about the role of our sector in improving their everyday lives.

This estrangement helps to explain the difficulty we found ourselves in 2008, and after the subsequent general election which brought the coalition government to power. Under pressure from the right and desperate to kick-start the economy, David Cameron quickly shed his erstwhile public enthusiasm for green issues. George Osborne was even famously reported as viewing Britain’s bird-life as ‘feathered obstacles to growth.’ Their collective judgement was that much of the working class, as well as many voters in middle England had come to see green policies as irrelevant or even alien to their interests.

With hindsight, we can now see that these very same groups of voters thought that the European Union was alien to their interests, and voted against it in great numbers last month.

For the green movement, the unavoidable conclusion must be that our politics has become entangled in the public imagination with a broadly metropolitan sensibility that is culturally alien to much of England, and is of little of relevance to the poor.

For a movement founded to protect the countryside, and to help ordinary people fight off land-grabs and pollution, this is a parlous state of affairs. Indeed without action it could become an existential threat. So what could be done?

Thankfully, the seeds of an answer have already been sown. For almost a decade now, the National Trust, Woodland Trust and RSPB have been investing carefully in re-building the foundations of their support by connecting people to places and nature. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have begun to use their substantial clout in campaigns against air pollution in our cities. Anti-fracking protests have united local people with activists in towns from Sussex to Lancashire. Slowly but surely, the green movement is starting to remember how to tap into public concern.

Where we come from matters: Re-connecting with English voters

But any authentic politics of place must listen to people when they describe where they come from; and huge numbers of our people call themselves English. They are proud of their country and its rich artistic and political traditions which are often intimately linked with its land. The support of these people, many of whom feel their Englishness has been neglected or belittled by the left, and who voted in droves to leave the EU, remains critical to the environment movement if we wish to renew our political legitimacy.

If green campaigners fail to respond to the concerns of working people struggling with poor housing, meagre employment prospects, and a degraded local environment we cannot realistically think of ourselves as ‘on the side’ of the disenfranchised. If we don’t find common ground with England’s rural and coastal communities, our hopes of protecting our land, natural resources and workforce from exploitation in a post Brexit world will founder.

People up and down the country are making and re-making their local identities and creating a generous Englishness. What is stopping us being a part of this renaissance?

The answer is that we are the problem.  Parts of the left continue either to reject any form of national identity as regressive, or see Englishness as a coded endorsement of colonialism, or worse, an accommodation with racism. In green circles this manifests itself in a fear that love of the English countryside is part of a cultural project that undermines diversity and protects privilege.  This view has even been used to question the worth of contemporary artists who document rural life or English history – including (for example) Adam Thorpe and Geoffrey Hill.

Such a narrow and defensive approach to our cultural life is unworthy of the left.  We can do better and imagine our kind of England, proud of its land, language and culture, and open to its diversity. A patriotism that is welcoming to all who wish to contribute our shared life and common good. We have a long history of English radicalism to call upon. The wanderings of Thomas Hardy’s Tess were, after all, those of an abused peasant woman exiled from her home. And if anyone wishes to feel the bones of resistance poking out from under England’s chalk soils, they have only to read W H Hudson’s masterpiece A Shepherd’s Life  and weep at the sentences of death and exile handed out for stealing a sheep.

Labour and the green movement have much to gain by weaving such stories into a modern sense of Englishness, not least because they give us some precious clues about how we might renew our bonds with each other, and with the natural world.

Innumerable English writers and artists have understood that by walking over the land and working on it, by being fully present in it, we can come to know it intimately, and claim it as our own. An English politics of nature that draws on Jon Cruddas’ ideas of earning and belonging, would be something worth fighting for. Its heroes and heroines would be the  custodians of our parks and pavements, as well as our seas, mountains and rivers.  They would be botanists and ornithologists, farmers, builders, mechanics and inventors, anyone who participates in the poetic and practical business of walking on and working for the land.

Building such a movement would be a shared civic endeavour, in which green groups and wildlife societies, local co-operatives, clubs, schools and faith communities all played their part.

An English politics of nature – Four acts of renewal

We could begin by promising to help the children of England visit and spend time in the countryside, working alongside farmers, foresters and fishers to learn about and appreciate nature. There are already brilliant people making this happen, including the author Michael Morpurgo and his wife Claire, who run the ground-breaking Farms for City Children.  But we could multiply this a thousand times if it was the core of a new politics of nature, and we actively recruited people up and down the country to help.  Yes, we  must make sure that biology and natural history are properly taught in the national curriculum, and that children get fresh air and access to nature during the school day.  But let’s not wait – let’s show how it can be done, and in doing so help re-build bonds between our towns, cities and countryside.

Next, let’s re-ignite the community of amateur naturalists and citizen scientists that built the conservation movement, and whom we need now more than ever. The erosion of the independence and expertise of bodies such as the Nature Conservancy Council might have begun under Mrs Thatcher, but it has continued ever since with vengeance. Every day more pressure is placed on government scientists to say less about the state of nature. In the world after Brexit, when many of our existing nature and public health laws may come under pressure or need to be re-written, our civic power will become our most powerful and necessary defence. We can record the presence or absence of wildlife in our gardens, fields and hedges, or the presence of dangerous chemicals in our food and water, and share this information as never before. We can monitor the air quality on our streets when government fails to do so. We can build the case for British nature and environment laws based on publicly owned and independent sources of information, and designed to protect the health of our population and our countryside. One example of this kind of project from the US, where universities are helping volunteers monitor levels of herbicides in their bodies, shows what can be done through civic effort.

Using modern mapping tools, we can also start to protect the places that we love – whether meadows, allotments, parks or playing fields. By describing what we want to preserve or change in our communities and capturing these things in neighbourhood plans, we can lay the foundations of a new English Commons. And when government or private capital threatens to destroy or enclose them, we can organise around their defence and come to each other’s aid. As a statement of our intent, let’s set up parish and neighbourhood walks, marking out the boundaries of our special places and laying out where we want to see decent, affordable homes.

And last but not least, let’s back ourselves to lead a new English industrial revolution, inventing and manufacturing the kinds of goods and technologies that heal rather than harm nature. This wouldn’t just make our homes warmer and our air cleaner; it would also see our products being sold all over the world, in a booming global market that is already worth trillions. As we seek to re-establish our economic place in the world, we can own concepts like the ‘northern powerhouse’, using them to make us world beaters in technologies like electric vehicles.

If we were to do only a part of this, we would immeasurably strengthen our ability to remodel a political economy that pits people against nature and nature against progress. We would also provide ourselves with a powerful foundation for renewed international leadership on issues such as climate change, where our withdrawal from the EU creates the need for a fresh start. But whatever the ideals we work towards, and whatever the global solutions we seek, let us remember that home is where the heart is. Humans are sticky creatures; like burs, they cling to where they land, the hooks of their affections burrowing deep into things that strangers would scarcely notice, like a single tree or a napkin of land at the end of a street. The places we live in, the country we live in, is crossed over and over by invisible trails of love and belonging. When we forget this, we forget ourselves.

It is the young and old who see this most clearly and whose dreams and memories we hold in trust.  My father is 92 now, and he remembers the last country fair held in his Hampshire village. It was a ramshackle affair, run by a farmer who was selling up and wanted enough money for a last night in the pub.  The prize attraction was a ride on a bad-tempered pony, and the reward for staying stay on its back a gold-fish kept in the local stream. I am there when he tells me this story, longing to ride the horse and pick out a shining fish from the water.  And I am filled with pleasure when I watch him telling this same tale to his grand-children.  He and I understand that by walking in the garden together or down the lane with the dog, by talking over the past or picking out the birds and flowers we love in the hedges, we are bound to one another and to the earth.  This is an affirmation of the meaning and value of his long, fruitful life; and a blessing beyond price.

This article was first published in Fabian Review Summer 2016.

 

Letter for friends in the environment movement.

 

I know that many of you will have been suffering what feels like a physical blow from the results and fall out of the referendum.   Whatever the wider politics of the debate, you have been working for years to protect our wildlife, climate, clean air and water.  I expect some of you feel (as I have done intermittently) that this work is now not only at grave risk – but also that that it is somehow now not wanted by our much-loved country.

Please think through this last point again and then carefully, and systematically reject it.   There is no mandate from this referendum to make our country dirtier, our housing shoddier, our water more polluted.  There has been no vote to destroy our woodlands and meadows.  There was no question on the ballot paper asking us if we wanted to tear up our obligations to cut climate pollution and stop co-operating with our neighbours and friends to tackle the impacts of extreme weather.

The overwhelming majority of our fellow-citizens love nature.  They are concerned to make sure that we leave a planet that is safe and prosperous for our children.  They are more than willing to contribute towards solving international environmental problems if this is done fairly and with their active involvement and consent.

In the coming months, there will be a group of people arguing that the referendum gives them permission to tear up protections for which the people of this country have fought for years.  It does not.  

They will claim that the current economic uncertainty (upon which they thrive) can only be fixed by a regulatory race to the bottom – a bonfire of laws that protect people and nature.  In reality such a race will make us poorer – as well as making us less healthy and secure and damaging our traditions and heritage. 

Resist these people.  They did not win a general election.  They were on the winning side in a referendum about our relationship with the European Union, not our relationship with nature.  We must not allow them to conduct a political land-grab, based on the outcome of a campaign that they barely expected to succeed, and which many of them treated like a sixth form common room game.  This is our country.  We deserve better.

Nor should we spend our time futilely arguing about whether there will or will not be another referendum, or if and when we will invoke Article 50.  I have no idea what the final outcome of this situation will be. But I do know that we will never secure the settlement we need from our Parliament and future Government if we don’t focus on the future – and build alliances of ‘inners’ and ‘outers’ who can take control of this unexpected revolution on behalf of the people and communities of our country, whatever their attitudes to the EU.

There are many currents of thought and feeling in the case for ‘Leave’ that we can all understand and respect. A desire for more power to rebuild local economies and invest in local services.  A mistrust of the untrammelled operation of international capitalism.  A feeling that we have the resilience to weather storms and be self-reliant. 

Many friends, family and colleagues took the decision to vote out because they believed they were doing the right thing for the country.  In doing so, very few of them imagined they were voting for the cleansing fire of the market to be let lose yet again, to further erode the ties that bind them, the quality of their working lives and the beauty and richness of their countryside.

So let’s get to work.  Our country is in peril.  We must not hand it over to the bully-troops of neo-conservatism.  Let’s argue for a new settlement that reflects the best of our country – its long history of environmental leadership on the international stage  and its deep-seated love of nature.

 

Stronger, Safer, Greener? Should environmentalists support the UK’s membership of the EU?

Greens are rallying against a Brexit. From familiar faces like Stanley Johnson and Caroline Lucas, to groups like the Wildlife Trusts, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, environmentalists are mobilising voters and making the case for ‘in’.

Predictably, they are now coming under attack from ‘out’ campaigners, who claim that charities in particular should not have the right to take sides in the referendum debate.  Yet the green groups’ arguments are powerful for the simple reason that they can point to facts on the ground.  European laws help keep our beaches and drinking water clean and protect our forests.  European leadership helped secure last year’s global climate deal – something many believed impossible.

But before we conclude that staying in is a green ‘no-brainer’, we should be prepared to address the ‘why’, as well as the ‘what’ of European protection. Why turn to Brussels, when we could make laws of our own? Why rely on the EU when ‘subsidiarity’ (the idea of doing things at the most local level possible), is a defining principle for many greens?

In looking for answers I believe we will find a compelling case for continued European co-operation; but also a pattern for a different kind of Europe – one which seeks to give people more control over their lives, and a more active role in building our future economy.

But first let’s examine the EU’s green balance sheet.

The catalogue of successes is impressive. European rules stop raw sewage being pumped into the sea; they control health risks from dangerous chemicals and maintain a world-beating network of protected nature areas. We are healthier and better off as a result of these protections, in many cases championed by British politicians such Johnson and Lucas.

However, there are ‘outers’ who claim that the damage done by measures such as the Common Agriculture and Fisheries Policies outweighs these benefits – and there is a case to answer.

A mass of evidence does indeed demonstrate that industrialised farming has been bad for wildlife, soil and water quality.  And experience suggests that controlling the minutiae of land management decisions through prescriptions made in Brussels is often clumsy, if not down-right destructive.

But before we blame all of this on the CAP, we should remember that agricultural intensification has transformed farming systems across the developed world, not just in Europe – the result of technological change as much as political intervention. Moreover, without Government support today, farming in large parts of Britain would cease altogether, unable to compete with cheaper food imported on the open market.

Some ‘Outers’ claim we could deal with this by making national support payments, but with 70% of farm exports currently going to the EU, a Brexit could still put many farmers out of business. The likely result would be the loss of many traditional landscapes, thousands of jobs, and a centuries’ old working relationship with the land. I (for one) would much rather wildlife returned to our farms through a renewed covenant between the public and farmers.  But to achieve this requires a system in which farmers can make a living whilst protecting nature; a system that will be much tougher to achieve if we retreat into isolation, or surrender entirely to the global market.  Building a better CAP might be a tough option, but it is the one most likely to get the job done.

The more salient question, then, is whether a reformed CAP is capable of greater subsidiarity – allowing communities to shape land-use in a way that respects local traditions and a sense of place. Part of the answer might lie in looking at models of democratic engagement that already exist in the canon of European thought and law-making.  EU laws on water management (for example) aim at radical levels of public participation – but have been neglected by our own Government and its Agencies. Greater devolution and civic involvement in decision making would be a bold move forward for the CAP.

The history of the Common Fisheries Policy offers similar lessons.  The unreformed CFP damaged the marine environment and put fishing communities on their beam-ends.  But the reality is that fish do not keep still, and can be caught beyond our boundaries; and so our industry relies for its survival on responsible behaviour by our neighbours. A UK outside Europe would have much less ability to influence this – which is why it was such a breakthrough when recent reforms of the CFP returned day-to-day management of fish stocks to coastal communities, but with a strengthened commitment to conservation.

Despite their failings, the CAP and the CFP in fact illustrate why European co-operation on the environment is necessary.  We need shared approaches to tackle trans-boundary problems like the stewardship of fish stocks and the maintenance of habitats for migratory birds.  And if we want market access and a level playing field for our businesses without a race to the bottom, we need common environmental rules.

But these policies will only be workable in future if the EU puts much greater trust in its citizens – giving them the power to come up with locally sensitive solutions that contribute to the common good.  And this in turn requires not just a change of culture, but also real vision; because alongside a programme of democratic reform, Europe also needs a plan to revive its flagging economy, and address the humanitarian and security challenges on its doorstep.  The question for greens, is what role should the environment play in both?

The contribution of environmental harm to the toxic mixture of hunger, political instability, conflict and extremism that is currently shaking North Africa and the Arab region is well-understood and documented.  In particular, the role of drought as a driver of the current crises has been carefully explored.  This has motivated security chiefs in the US to become advocates for action on climate change, and development organisations to campaign on climate, at the same time that they struggle with mounting problems on the ground.

All this also makes a strong security case for continued European leadership in this area – but securing global co-operation on such a ‘wicked’ problem as climate change is notoriously difficult; it requires efforts over years to build trust in shared solutions.  Europe has provided this leadership precisely because of the sense of common purpose that is possible when countries invest in a long-term project like the EU.  If the UK were to leave, not only would our influence over this issue diminish – but we would also diminish the influence of Europe as a whole – making it more difficult to ensure implementation of the Paris agreement, for example.  We would all – every citizen in Europe and beyond – lose out as a result.

But tackling climate change is not just a question of international diplomacy; it also represents a huge opportunity for Europe to re-build its domestic prosperity. With a global economic slow-down looming, it looks likely that the response will depend at least partly on renewed investment in infrastructure.  This could see trillions of dollars poured into the energy economy, at a time when the world is experiencing a technological revolution.

Smart grids, electric vehicles, batteries and cheaper renewable power are breaking the mould of the energy system.  Europe can be a beneficiary of this new order – slashing imports, improving competitiveness and dramatically reducing fuel demand. It can also lead the way in liberating the ‘prosumer’ – individuals and communities that generate and sell their own energy, and own a stake in the rapidly expanding clean technology sector.  The reforms necessary to unleash this wave of innovation are backed both by environmentalists and the advocates of energy market liberalisation.  They also offer an anti-dote to the centralising force of the EU, by channelling the potential of new technologies into the diffusion of power.

But the UK’s slice of this action will be massively reduced if it cuts itself off from Europe.  Outside of the EU, we will either lose access to energy European markets and grids, or be obliged to obey EU rules with little or no ability to influence them.  It will be our citizens who will suffer if we cannot shape electric vehicle markets to suit our car industry, or European power grids to benefit our offshore wind fleet.

The Brexit referendum is not a moment to shut down debate or avoid difficult questions; instead it should free all of us to interrogate everything about the old EU, and to reach for something better.  In doing so, we can imagine and create a new Europe – of innovation, industrial opportunity and devolved power.  Our own country can and should be at the heart of this project.  And that heart can – and should – be green.

This article was first published by E3G – Third Generation Environmentalism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paris in three easy stages: (3) What do countries need from the deal?

Paris in three easy stages: (3) What do countries need from the deal?

This piece was first published on Energydesk

It’s a very brave or foolish analyst who thinks they can guess the ‘red lines’ of countries going into a negotiation as complex as Paris. But here’s a stab at what might be on their minds. In the spirit of a World Cup preview and in the interests of fairness, I have listed blocs and countries in alphabetical order….

Africa Group: The group of African nations is an increasingly powerful force in climate negotiations, though very diverse, covering oil producing countries in the North, and more vulnerable and poorer countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. The group advocates for adaptation to receive sufficient attention in the new Paris agreement, and for strong outcomes on climate finance. Countries such as Kenya are also exploring opportunities to put their countries onto cleaner and more resilient development pathways – including leap-frogging high-carbon power generation – with appropriate investment and support.

AILAC (Independent Alliance of Latin America and the Caribbean): a group who promote positive action on climate change, including through action in their own domestic economies. Their priorities include a stronger focus on adaptation and climate resilient development, as well as securing a more collaborative approach from all countries (North and South) to cutting pollution.

Association of Small Island States: Traditionally a moral voice calling for urgency in the negotiations, AOSIS includes countries for which sea-level rise is an existential threat. Their priorities include recognition of the need to limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees above industrial levels, and rapid pollution cuts to keep that goal in site. They will also seek to ensure that loss and damage is recognised as a core part of a new climate deal, given that for some, adaptation may no longer be possible.

BASIC: This grouping of South Africa, India, China and Brazil was for a while a highly influential grouping, bringing together emerging economies with shared interests in the negotiations. More recently the priorities of the four countries have diversified, and they more rarely act or speak as a bloc. Their concerns in the past tended to focus on risks to their economic development from being pressured into taking on binding pollution cuts, and pressurising developed countries to meet existing obligations.

Brazil: Brazil has a Rolls-Royce diplomatic machinery and usually helps to shape international environmental agreements. However, domestic turmoil is hampering them, alongside their interests in offshore drilling, and a shaky recent record on tackling deforestation. Their very experienced team of diplomats may still seek out a brokering and bridge-building role in Paris.

Canada and Australia: Canada’s recent change of Government should see them move from potential blockers to a move positive force, and they will be anxious to demonstrate their fresh stance to a domestic audience. Meanwhile, the change of Prime Minister in Australia might make them less hostile to international climate action.

China: China has made huge investments in renewable energy, moved to reduce its coal dependence, and plans to introduce a nation-wide carbon trading scheme. Scarred by the ‘blame game’ after Copenhagen, China is also keen to be seen as a constructive player. But the government retains deep-seated anxieties about taking on commitments which they have not considered in detail at the domestic level, and do not know they can meet. They will work to ensure that the international regime moves at a speed that reflects their domestic planning – whilst honouring their climate collaboration with the United States.

Climate Vulnerable Forum: The CVM is not a negotiating bloc in the formal sense, but rather a platform that enables countries that are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change to come together to plan their shared responses, at a practical as well as a political level. They recently issued a statement calling on the world to back a 1.5 degree temperature goal, and promising further elaboration of their position when leaders arrive in Paris on 30th November.

European Union: Europe styles itself as a climate leader – the bloc introduced renewable energy targets and emissions trading schemes earlier than most other countries. But the financial melt-down and recession, Greek bail-out and refugee crises have left little attention for climate diplomacy in recent years. The presence of hostile Poland, whose new Government has declared a climate agreement ‘against its national interest’, also acts as a drag on ambition. On the positive side, Angela Merkel does seem to be back on the climate beat, delivering G7 support for decarbonisation – and the French hosts of COP21 are pulling out the stops for a credible outcome. European priorities include ensuring a binding legal framework and a strong rule book for the new agreement. They will also want to see action from all other major polluters, so that they can push on with action on the home front, including implementing their ‘Energy Union’ package.

G77 group of developing countries + China: This is the largest bloc of countries in the negotiations, including many very poor and highly vulnerable nations, but also richer oil producing states like Saudi Arabia. Whilst they have a very wide range of perspectives, they also have some shared priorities which they defend strongly, including the need for developed countries to make good on their financial promises to help poorer countries adapt to climate change and invest in clean energy.

India: We should expect India to push hard for guarantees that it will not be ‘trapped’ into constraints on its future energy choices – particularly given the government’s sensitivity on the subject of coal. However, India could also be a big winner from an agreement that helps unlock investment into its massive solar programme, and gives it access to technology. Ultimately, India’s flexibility in the negotiations may come down to how confident President Modi is feeling that bilateral deals signed before and after Paris will boost India’s economy and make it a hub for clean tech.

Least Developed Countries: a large group facing severe development and poverty alleviation challenges. Their focus is on seeing practical and demonstrable benefits from an agreement, as well as ambitious efforts to cut pollution – since between them they represent a very small part of global emissions, but bear the brunt of climate impacts. Their priorities include securing agreement on a 1.5 degree temperature limit, and ensuring that public climate finance is directed towards adaptation in countries with the most pressing needs.

Like Minded Group of Developing Countries: This is a relatively disparate group including some emerging economies (China, India, Malaysia), some very vulnerable countries (Bangladesh) and some oil producing nations (Venezuela, Saudi Arabia). They tend to focus on defending the principle of ‘differentiation’ between developed and developing countries in the new agreement, and holding developed countries to account to fulfil existing obligations and promises. Countries within the LMDCs are generally also represented in other negotiating groupings, where other national priorities can be articulated. (China for example has multiple strands of engagement in the talks over and above its presence in the LMGDCs).

Russia: Often described as the ‘dark horse’ of climate negotiations, Russia in the past has been prepared to throw spanners in the works – possibly reflecting concerns about its status in the international community more widely. Recent news that the government is planning to introduce additional measures to cut carbon might signal a more positive outlook.

Saudi Arabia and the oil producers: Oil and gas producing countries have traditionally opposed climate action, and will continue to resist elements of a deal which pose a profound threat to their business model. They are likely to seek to water down any global goal that signals decarbonisation, for example. However, the global momentum towards a deal makes it unlikely that they will attempt to block action entirely; and there is some evidence that they are beginning to work towards diversifying their economies at home, in recognition of the inevitability of the transition.

Umbrella group: a group of non-EU developed countries including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US, Japan and Russia. The group’s diverse interests have limited their influence over time, though they continue to argue against robust plans for climate finance (for example), and have in the past been advocates for a wholly ‘bottom up’, non-binding approach to addressing climate change.

United States: President Obama needs a credible deal to secure his climate legacy, and his willingness to back five year reviews and a global decarbonisation goal shows he is willing to go a fair distance to get one. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that he has shrugged off worries about a domestic back-lash, including the reaction of a hostile Senate. To maintain his position on the home front, Obama will have to demonstrate that the US’s economic competitors are also locked into action – above all, China. Bilateral deals with Beijing have done a lot of the heavy lifting on this, but the US will resist language that perpetuates the idea of ‘two tribes’ of developed and developing countries, with only the former taking on obligations under a new deal. And then there is the little matter of getting a deal that’s legally binding – but not so legally binding that it requires the permission of the Senate to sign up…. (see Part 2, Key Issues, for more detail…).

 

 

Paris in three easy stages: (2) what are the issues?

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Paris in three easy stages: (2) what are the issues?

This piece was first published on Energydesk

The negotiations on a new climate deal are hugely complex and have been going on for years, so it’s easy to lose site of the big picture. Here is one take on the ‘make or break’ issues:

1)     Agreeing global goals:

Countries have already agreed that temperature rises should be limited to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, and are considering whether this should be lowered to 1.5 degrees. But this goal is hard to put into practice without understanding what it means for our energy system. Because of this, 2015 has seen an unprecedented push by civil society, faith and business groups to secure a more concrete global goal in the new Paris deal.

A range of options are included in the draft agreement, many of them detailed here. Expect to see a fight in Paris on which will prevail, with oil producing nations pushing back at anything that would threaten their business model, and China and India amongst others, wary of backing a binding goal unless it can work hand-in-hand with their wider development needs.

Of the runners and riders, a commitment to decarbonisation of the global economy gets closest to the demands of civil society, for a total phase out of fossil fuel emissions, and a phase in of 100% clean, safe, renewable energy by 2050.

Ministers are also thought likely to agree on a parallel goal for adaptation – an important step, signalling the need for much more concerted multi-lateral and national efforts to assess the risks from climate change and prepare for its future impacts.

2)     Raising ambition:

At the time of writing, 155 countries have put forward national climate plans as their contributions to the Paris deal. Taken together, these plans will make a significant dent in the effort needed to keep warming below 2 degrees – with projections suggesting that temperature rises could now be contained to between 2.2 and 3.5 degrees, rather than spiralling up towards 4 or 5, as looked likely under previous business-as-usual scenarios.

But the plans – known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs – are not enough to keep us below 2 degrees on their own, let alone 1.5 degrees (the level above which many countries argue their survival will be threatened). This is why the draft agreement includes provisions to bring countries back to the negotiating table with more ambitious proposals in the coming years.

But whilst progress has been made in agreeing on the need for ongoing ‘cycles of commitment’ (ideally every five years), the details of how they will work are still up for grabs. Crucial decisions include whether countries will have to come back with new offers by 2020; and if there will be provisions forcing countries to strengthen their targets, if collective efforts fall short. These discussions are likely to get highly technical, with different dates flying around and even experienced observers getting confused; diagrams like this can help.

3)      Agreeing who will take on binding commitments to cut pollution:

Under previous agreements, only developed countries (as defined in 1992) had legal obligations to cut climate pollution. This strict ‘firewall’ between groups of countries is unlikely to survive in the Paris agreement in its current form; but there will be tough discussions about how to differentiate between countries at different stages of development, to make sure the deal is fair, and that those with the greatest ‘responsibilities, capabilities and capacities’ pull their weight. Language agreed last year by China and US on this issue could point towards a ‘landing ground’, as a final compromise text is often called in negotiator-speak.

4)     Having a plan for finance:

Climate finance is the money that richer countries are committed to provide to poorer countries, to help them adapt to the impacts of climate change, and to build clean rather than dirty energy as they become more industrialised. Without a clear indication that rich countries are delivering on their promise to provide $100 billion a year by 2020, and have a plan to make finance flow after 2020, many poorer countries will feel they have been left to ‘pick up the bill’. In particular, they are looking for greater priority to be given to grants to help them adapt to climate impacts. There is also growing recognition that Paris must give a strong signal to investors, that will help ‘shift the trillions’ of private sector dollars needed to secure a switch from dirty to clean energy across the whole global economy.

5)     Recognising that less mitigation means more adaptation:

Countries facing severe impacts from climate change have argued that adaptation must receive as much political attention as mitigation (cutting pollution) in the Paris agreement. Progress is being made towards agreeing a global goal on adaptation, but for many, the critical question is whether Paris will acknowledge the link between the scale of mitigation action taken on the one hand, and the need for adaptation on the other. Put simply, if pollution cuts don’t keep us on course for 2 or 1.5 degrees, adaptation efforts will need to increase to match the effects of higher temperatures. This requires a greater focus on risk assessment, resilience and adaptation planning; but also an acknowledgment of the costs of inaction, expressed as higher adaptation costs.

6)     Dealing with loss and damage from climate impacts:

There are some impacts of climate change to which it will not be possible to adapt – instead, we will be faced with residual ‘loss and damage’. Examples include Peoples and communities obliged to leave their countries and homes permanently; or the losses associated with destroyed ecosystems. Countries facing such impacts argue that there should be a specific stream of work to deal with them, referenced within the Paris agreement. Resistance comes from big polluters, who fear that establishing such provisions will open the door to future compensation claims.

7)     Securing transparency and a level playing field:

Countries that take on international obligations like to have evidence that others will take their commitments seriously – including having clear accounting systems, and high-quality monitoring and reporting. But in reality, whilst it’s great to have someone else’s actions scrutinised, its less fun when it comes to your own; creating a risk that bigger countries will agree to a ‘don’t look at mine and I won’t look at yours’ regime in Paris. Businesses hate this and it is bad for the credibility of the future agreement. This is an area where the EU has traditionally been a leader; they will now need to persuade others that strong rules and a commitment to transparency build a good environment for investment.

8)     Getting a binding deal:

The agreement being negotiated in Paris is intended to be legally binding. It will not be a political declaration or other non-binding deal unless there is a catastrophic breakdown in the negotiations. But within this framework, there is considerable nuance. This is because the United States Senate will not ratify an international climate agreement; so the deal needs to be constructed in such a way that it will not trigger the need for Senate consent, but instead can be signed off directly by the President. Basically, this means that specific national targets will not be included within the core agreement, but referenced or ‘anchored’ in a way that commits countries to the actions needed to fulfil them. At this point, any further explanation will require a raft of lawyers, and so I refer you to existing material on the matter. Watch this space….

 

 

The Paris climate summit in 3 easy steps: 1 – How do the talks work?

This piece was first published on Energydesk

In theory, there is a relatively well-understood rhythm to a high-level negotiation of the kind planned for Paris. The reality is often a lot messier and more nerve-wracking. The French hosts will be hoping to limit the drama to a final standing ovation for the world’s first comprehensive, legally binding climate treaty.

29th November: The world marches:

Up to one million people are expected to take to the streets of Paris on the weekend before the talks open, with sister marches in cities around the world (including London). Together, these will be the biggest ever manifestation of public support for action on climate change. Prominent among the demands will be a call for the world to be powered entirely by clean, safe renewable energy within a generation.

The circus unfolds:

Whilst Paris will stand and fall on the success of the formal negotiations, there will be a vast amount of other activity going on around the conference, ranging from the inspiring to the puzzling. Mayors from around the world will be hosted by Anne Hidalgo of Paris and Michael Bloomburg of New York, in an event show-casing climate leadership in cities. Clean tech innovators and financiers will share ideas about re-booting the world’s energy systems. Thousands will meet to discuss land use and forests. Civil society groups will stage hundreds of actions demanding greater urgency from politicians. And whilst the French hosts have thankfully avoided a partnership with the global coal industry (as happened at COP 19), there will no doubt be both glitz and controversy surrounding the role of corporate sponsors at the talks.

30th November Leaders arrive for a short visit:

Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping have confirmed that they will fly to Paris for the opening of the talks. Their presence, along with scores of other world leaders, will increase the price of failure; but also cause a few headaches for the French. No-one wants a repeat of Copenhagen, where leaders milled around the Bella Centre accompanied by packs of security guards, and eventually ended up writing bits of the final communique themselves as the meeting descended into chaos.

The French hope to avoid echoes of that disaster by having them open the COP – but ideally they will have more to do than just make a three minute speech and jet out again. As well as attending private meetings to help resolve crunch issues, they may be asked to signal their willingness to ‘be on the phone’ to fix any last-minute blockages and their personal commitment to accelerating the global transition to a clean economy.

1st – 8th December: negotiators work on the draft agreement:

Officials have been working for months now on a rough draft of the proposed deal; a cleaned up version of this should provide the basis for the opening discussions in Paris. These will take place within the snappily named ‘Ad Hoc Working Group on the Advanced Durban Platform’, co-chaired by an Algerian and a US diplomat. As explained elsewhere, these Co-Chairs have the tricky task of trying to whittle the text down to a manageable length, with only a few unresolved issues left ‘open’ for Ministers to fix when they arrive during the second week of the talks. Whilst the current draft agreement is not as long or messy as the text going into Copenhagen, many observers are concerned that insufficient progress has been in slimming it down, creating a significant hurdle on the way to a meaningful agreement.

From December 9th – the ‘high level segment’:

In theory negotiators should have resolved all but the most difficult issues by the middle of the second week of the talks – leaving a few ‘square brackets’ around choices that are so tricky or sensitive, they need high-level political engagement to settle. (See ‘Part 2’ for an outline of key issues).

At this point, the Ad Hoc Working group (ADP) should formally close, and the actual COP – the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC – should begin its high-level negotiations.

Responsibility for managing the final stages of the talks is then handed over to the French hosts – with a senior Minister (most likely Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius), taking on the role of ‘COP President’. From now on, it is the President’s job, supported by the secretariat of the UNFCCC, to help politicians resolve any outstanding issues. This often involves pairs of Ministers, one from a developed and one from a developing country, working together in an attempt to find common ground amongst the 195 signatories to the climate convention.

At this stage all the work is behind closed doors and generally goes on well into the night. The potential for rumours and mistrust is considerable. A diplomatic misstep or a leaked text that seems to favour one side or another (as happened in Copenhagen), can have disastrous consequences.

11th, 12th, 13th[1]…The end game and final plenary:

Assuming that all has gone well (in diplomatic terms), and that ministers and leaders (on their phones) have resolved the outstanding issues, the COP presidency will call everyone together for a final ‘plenary’ meeting – a meeting of all the countries at the most senior level. This is where decisions are made in a COP.

This final plenary is the moment of maximum drama, because the UN Climate Convention operates by consensus – meaning that every country in the room (at least in theory) has the chance to veto the deal. Saudi Arabia, Bolivia, India and Russia have all at different times ‘put up their flags’ to make objections of this kind in previous COPs.

As a result, plenaries have often been the scene of intense wrangling, with diplomats forming huddles (and sometimes scrums) in frantic attempts to over-come final hour disagreements. We assume the French will be hoping fervently to avoid ‘Le Huddle’, however exciting it might be for watching journalists….

If a deal is finally agreed, the President will say the magic words – ‘It is so decided’, the gavel will come down, and there will be a mixture of tears, jeers and cheers – and not a little astonishment. And then will begin the long job of working out what it actually means.

[1] (Although the final plenary is generally slated to happen on Friday night, there is a wide-spread expectation that things will drag on until at least Saturday, and perhaps even Sunday morning….)

So long Bonn, and thanks for all the text…..

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This article was first published on Energy Desk

Does anyone really understand what happened at last week’s UN climate talks in Germany? Did the stormy atmosphere blow a hole in the potential for a new global deal – or are countries still on course to reach a historic agreement?

If anyone should know, it’s Christiana Figueres – the super-savvy Costa Rican diplomat who is in charge of bringing the talks to a successful conclusion in December.

This is what she had to say, after a tetchy week that saw a large group of developing countries reject a slimmed-down version of the draft treaty – and a new, much longer text emerge.

‘We now have a text that is owned by parties and balanced.  I cannot over-emphasise how important that is.  It is longer and more contradictory in some ways – but it is manageable.’

At first sight, this upbeat assessment seems contradictory.  How can the situation have improved if the text has got longer and the options multiplied?

The answer lies in the balance between trust and clarity which is central to these complex negotiations. The nine page short draft was indeed relatively easy to read. But the diplomats who drafted it had left out proposals which many countries felt were vital to their national interests.  As a result, countries didn’t feel ownership of the draft and were not prepared to use it as the basis for progress.

This is a familiar hazard for diplomats trying to produce a draft that is simple enough for politicians to understand and make decisions about – but broad enough to represent a wide range of views.

If they get it wrong in the run up to a big summit, negotiators exercise their right to go back to the drawing board.  This is frustrating, but it is the very essence of multi-lateral diplomacy.

The real problem comes if the text expands so much that there isn’t time to get it back on track before leaders roll into town.  If that happens, it usually results in a short, ‘lowest common denominator’ package, cobbled together because the bosses won’t agree on anything more substantial when they are up against the clock.

There is of course always a risk that some countries will instruct their negotiators to slow things down because this is precisely the outcome they want. But most of those I spoke to in Bonn last week recognised that the draft text didn’t survive because it was too vague and weak in critical areas.

Most prominent were the text on climate finance, and the paragraphs setting out a pathway towards much tougher pollution cuts in future.

The original draft had very little to say about how richer countries would deliver on their promise to provide $100 billion of climate finance annually by 2020; or how this would be scaled up in the years afterwards.  Nor did it paint a convincing picture of how to ‘shift the trillions’ of dollars of private sector capital currently flowing into high carbon projects.

So far 155 Countries have tabled national climate action plans, signalling their willingness to participate in the new agreement. Many of these are developing countries struggling with the extreme weather whilst simultaneously seeking to build schools, hospitals and clean energy systems.

This level of participation in the deal is truly remarkable.  But for the promised action to become a reality, these countries need investment, technology and capacity-building.  Universal participation requires universal access to resources. It’s that simple – and the draft agreement didn’t include enough concrete proposals to make it happen.

Also, whilst the numbers of countries involved is really encouraging, it’s clear that the action proposed by countries so far will not be enough to keep temperature rises to manageable levels.

This makes it vital that there is a strong shared commitment to do better – including a goal to decarbonise the global economy by the middle of this century; and a process to drive new actions every five years, until that goal is achieved.

Positive proposals on global decarbonisation emerged from a recent meeting hosted by the UN Secretary General – but didn’t find their way into first Bonn text;  did wording that would bring countries back to the negotiating table in 2020 with more ambitious national plans.  These options were duly inserted during the week that followed, along with improved language on climate finance.

So, perhaps it’s time to say goodbye Bonn, and thanks for all the text.  The new draft agreement is too long, it has many options in it that will not survive, it reflects some countries’ hobby-horses.  But it also contains the potential for a better deal than was possible when the Bonn session started.

It is now the responsibility of negotiators to avoid playing the worst kind of climate games – the ones that put a strong outcome at risk – and to settle on a set of options that allow leaders to choose the future we need.

The last word should go to Christiana Figueres, who has a message for all those coming to December’s summit (inside and outside the formal negotiating process):

‘Come to Paris.  Participate. But participate responsibly.  Because I am telling you very clearly, that irresponsible participation – anything that delays action and undermines common ground – is unacceptable.  This is not a game.  It is our planet and our future that is at stake.’

George Osborne is on Labour’s turf – how should the party respond?

This is the longer version of the piece recently posted by Ed Wallis and I on The Staggers (see previous post).  It is published here online as part of this Summer’s Fabian Review. It might be worth reading alongside the text of George Osborne’s Conservative Party Conference speech, for added impact, and in the light of this Compass think piece on Conservative hegemony.

George Osborne is on Labour’s turf – how should the party respond?

It is five months since the exit poll that shattered Labour’s dreams of a return to office after just one term. Now, after an extraordinary and unexpected summer of internal debate, the party must face up to the task the electorate has presented it with for the next five years: opposing the first majority Conservative government of the 21st century.

The message that has reverberated from the leadership contest is the importance of offering a clear alternative. Labour’s professional political class has seemed unable to muster anything that looks, sounds and feels any different to business as usual; to the dark suits and yawning platitudes that have constituted our mainstream politics in recent times. Jeremy Corbyn’s obvious authenticity and demonstrable difference have driven a coach and horses through the party’s supposed certainties.

In light of this, there will be some temptation for Labour to become the party of ‘no’, burnishing its anti-austerity message, and through this seeking to offer greater moral clarity against the intensifying Tory cuts. The strong parliamentary presence of the SNP will heighten the allure of this route.

It would, however, be unwise for Labour to forget the lessons of its recent defeat. The first fruits of Jon Cruddas’s review into why Labour lost provided an important reminder that “the majority of voters in England and Wales supported the Tories’ austerity measures” and that “the idea of an anti-austerity alliance with the SNP is unacceptable to a majority of English and Welsh voters.” What’s more, recent Fabian research has estimated that 4 out of 5 of the votes Labour will need in English and Welsh marginal constituencies to win in 2020 will have to come direct from people who voted Conservative this year. So how can Labour credibly oppose the Conservatives while also rebuilding its relationship with the people of Britain? How can it offer a clear economic alternative at the same time as winning back trust?

The movement is everything

Labour’s first job will be to build and strengthen the relationships that allow it to stay together as a party and a movement, whilst tackling these big questions. Keeping Labour united was once seen as Ed Miliband’s greatest achievement, but has subsequently been deemed a dereliction, a failure to ‘have the argument’. But now, amid talk of viruses, resistance and a battle for Labour’s soul, the risk is that the party skips over renewal and regeneration to dive head-first into factional splits. Labour must find a way to have a deep rethink of its creed in a humble, civilised and plural manner. Indeed, the generosity and openness of this internal conversation will be a critical test of the party’s ability to match the

Conservative’s ‘one nation’ offer. A party unable to come together around its own sense of the common good is unlikely to be able to build a sense of common purpose with the electorate.

This means doing politics differently at every level. Traditionally, so much weight has been placed on the party leadership and the parliamentary party – and while they must be its frontline, actually renewal will come from below. Labour has always been a movement or it is nothing, and the democratic energy unleashed by the leadership contest has been a sight to behold. Now there is an opportunity to harness this and for local parties to build on the work of the American community organiser Arnie Graf in the last parliament, with which the party’s engagement ultimately proved piecemeal and superficial. Labour’s future lies as a radically decentralised organisation, where shared values and a sense of purpose emerge through relationships and action, rather than being imposed from above.

If the Labour party pursues this genuinely democratic project of institutional renewal, the task of the leadership will be to capture the emerging sense of shared priorities and reflect them in a politically salient strategy of opposition.

The Conservative’s ‘one nation’ challenge

In parliament, the starting point for any opposition is the Queen’s speech, the road map to the legislative year ahead. This is not just where a government defines its purpose, but is an opportunity for an opposition to do the same. It is a framework for an alternative story about the country, and the fulcrum for building campaigns outside Westminster.

The programme laid out by the Conservative party earlier this summer – in the Queens’s speech and the budget – was designed to put the Labour party on the wrong side of a set of political arguments that the government believes will damage it for a generation, and accelerate its decline as a party of the working class.

From immigration to trade union rights, from welfare and apprenticeships to the living wage and English devolution, the ground has been laid for a titanic narrative struggle. The Conservatives will attempt to present themselves as the party of quality education, affordable homes and decent wages for working people. At the same time, they will encourage Labour to use its political energy on opposing spending cuts, defending welfare, and aligning itself with big public service unions (which provide the party with a substantial part of its funds).

This sets Labour an unprecedented challenge, because blanket opposition to the measures on the table will give the Conservatives exactly what they want, whilst risking mortal damage in the eyes of the electorate. The test of Labour’s skill will be whether it can use this hazardous environment to spring the trap laid for it, and instead establish a new identity and purpose that takes it beyond the government’s intended stereotypes.

First and foremost, this will require it to capture the public imagination with a vision of the economy that delivers social justice through means other than just fiscal transfers: tax and welfare. An economic vision founded on contribution, reciprocity and the empowerment of citizens had begun to emerge before the last election through the policy review process, before it was abandoned by the leadership as they sought to ‘shrink the offer’. Returning to this framework, which has broad support across many parts of the party and was built through conversations at a constituency and local as well as national level, would finally allow Labour to challenge the Conservative’s one nation pretensions, whilst reclaiming its own historical grounding as the party of work and workers.

Opposing opportunities

Part of the response to the Conservative’s political gambit will be inevitably short-term and tactical. As well as the need to resist the most egregious legislative measures – or at least paint them as partisan and extreme, a departure from the ‘common sense of the age’ – the party will want to demonstrate that it can cause the government discomfort. But the choice of which fights to pick should be determined by the basic tasks of opposition: are there places where bad law can be made better, or where the government’s dominant narrative can be disrupted or undermined?

This requires looking at where the government is politically vulnerable, but also where cross-party and non-partisan alliances can cause it serious problems. In an era of rock bottom political trust, voices from outside of party politics can be uniquely effective in rallying opposition. The Health and Social Care Act 2012 is a good example from the last parliament, where Labour was able to secure significant amendments and political capital by working with GPs, the BMJ, the King’s Fund and the Royal Colleges, all of whom were lined up against Andrew Lansley’s reforms. As we look forward, the IFS will generally carry greater weight than Labour in determining (for example) if the government’s budgets really do ‘hit the poorest hardest’. The potential to call on voices such as these should help guide Labour in choosing where to focus its opposition.

Yes and, instead of no but

Some areas of obvious potential include the proposed reductions in working tax credits, which have already been condemned some self-styled ‘one nation’ Conservatives; the EU referendum bill, where the government is inevitably mired in in-fighting; and the troubled and divisive HS2 project.

No doubt these upcoming battles are already whetting the appetite of some Labour MPs. But to succeed in the job of re-building electoral trust and credibility, and to thwart the Conservative’s bigger political project, there are also areas where Labour must learn a language of unambiguous support, like the devolution bill.

Despite serious attempts to develop a distinctive Labour localism in the last parliament, Labour has been comprehensively outflanked on the issue by the ‘northern powerhouse’ project. ‘Devo-Manc’ is a fantastic opportunity to build civic pride, spread power, drive efficiencies and turn around some of the country’s worst health outcomes. It is also an opportunity for Labour politicians to control significant regional budgets at a time when it is out of power in Westminster. Cornwall’s new powers are a chance to put down roots in one of poorest regions of the country, where there is almost no Labour presence at all. Yet Labour has gone out of its way to find fault with the government’s devolution deal, too often sounding grudging and churlish. Instead, as Tristram Hunt put it in a recent speech to Demos, “we must shelve our timidity, match the Tory offer and go beyond it”. Better still, the plans to do so should be shaped and articulated by those already running successful Labour councils.

Strategic attack

But the biggest test for Labour will come in the form of the strategic elephant traps that have been laid by the Conservatives with such precision. While these are undoubtedly politically fraught, they also present opportunities for deep thinking about the party’s intellectual underpinnings. They are the prisms through which Labour must ask itself what is it for, in modern Britain?

A case in point: Labour’s meltdown in the high-summer sun over the welfare bill. It has been obvious for a long time that one of Labour’s biggest strategic weaknesses is that it is seen as the ‘party of welfare’. As a recently unearthed memo written by Ed Miliband’s pollster in 2010 put it: “Labour is seen to have been a principal architect and defender of a benefits culture.”

The easy thing to do here would be to blame the right-wing media for promulgating a ‘scrounger’ narrative, attempt to reframe ‘welfare’ as ‘social security’, and oppose the cuts with a righteous fervour. The harder thing would be to accept that, when people think of Labour as the ‘party of welfare’, they have a point. Ultimately, Labour’s welfare bind is a reckoning with how it has conducted its core business for over half a century: the ‘end’ of a more equal society has been pursued almost exclusively through the ‘means’ of the tax and benefits system. Fiscal transfers to alleviate poverty have been Labour’s way, more than tackling market inequalities at source or investing in the productive economy. So now the welfare bill asks it to choose between the devil of supporting greater inequality, or the deep blue sea of being on the wrong side of public opinion. The challenge for Labour is to develop a different answer – one that prioritises work and contribution, and reimagines the left’s purpose in an era of globalisation, scarce resources and complex problems.

If Labour were able to offer an answer of this kind, they would have a least a chance of defining themselves on their own, rather than the Conservative party’s terms. In so doing, they would also free themselves to exploit the Conservative’s weak flank: a welfare reform programme that leaves working people worse off. But to get a hearing on this issue will require a reckoning not just on welfare, but on the wider politics of austerity.

The biggest electoral task facing Labour is to restore people’s faith that their money is safe in the party’s hands, that taxes will be spent wisely. This is not the same thing as agreeing with George Osborne’s spending plans or accepting the increasing haste of the state’s retreat from public life. Nor is it the same thing as accepting the Conservative’s wider analysis about the economic necessity of austerity. But it does mean recognising the sharp differentiation from the government that the party seeks on spending must be found within a very shallow pool of economic trust; and that by proclaiming itself an ‘anti-austerity’ party, rather than laying out how it plans to invest in the productive economy, Labour will dry up that pool still further. All this points to the need for a political story that foregrounds the re-distribution of power rather than fiscal transfers; and makes the case for prudent public spending, focussed on areas that build the economy and have huge public support – including education, health, and essential infrastructure.

The trade union bill will provide a significant opportunity to set out this story clearly, if Labour is brave enough to take it. Undoubtedly, this is a pernicious and politically-motivated piece of legislation. The temptation will be to fight it tooth and nail as a partisan attack on Labour’s funding streams and an affront to workers’ rights. But while many of the proposals are indeed mendaciously designed, the unions risk falling into the trap of strengthening their dinosaur caricature. What if Labour, instead, recast it as a moment to reimagine industrial democracy in a post-industrial society?

This will require the whole of the labour movement to be self-reflective and clear-sighted. Union membership has been in decline for decades, a symptom of the hollowing out of a manufacturing economy and the rise of a service one. The density of union membership in the public sector continues to mask its dearth in the private. It is now a decade since the labour market expert David Coats warned in the Fabian pamphlet Raising Lazarus that “the rhetoric of struggle, strikes and strife has little purchase on the opinions of employees who care more about ‘getting on’ than ‘getting even’.” Little has changed in tone in the intervening years, meaning how unions look from the outside – white, male, middle aged, manual workers – rarely matches up with the profile of their members, who are more often than not graduate women working in offices.

Rather than weakening the unions, achieving the centre-left’s goals in the new economy requires them to have a much stronger role, putting democracy right at the very heart of how the economy functions. The aim must be, as GDH Cole put it, to move trade unions from “a bargaining force to a controlling force”: a bulwark against the overriding power of capital, right at the very heart of the firm. This would require much closer partnership working between business and unions, putting trust, long-termism and shared endeavour at the heart of a new British business model. The labour movement needs to broaden its appeal beyond its declining traditional foundations, taking root in the emerging sharing economy and new forms of work like freelancing.

Understandably, the tense battle over the bill will enflame passions, but the labour movement must be careful not to miss the opportunity to set out a much more radical alternative and provide an inspiring vision of free, democratically-accountable trade unions.

This effort, like so many, will be immeasurably strengthened by working at a grassroots level to campaign for, and indeed to build the alternative that Labour should be proposing in Westminster. A labour movement actively working to establish democratic trade unions in ‘hard to reach’ low-wage private sector work places will be both a more credible political force, and a more powerful force for good in the lives of those it seeks to represent.

Conclusion

Labour’s task might sound Herculean; but in reality there are a relatively small number of things that an opposition needs to do well, once (and if) it has recaptured a more confident sense of its own identity.

In simple terms, Labour will need to mount a critique of the government’s actions based on an understanding of where the Conservatives are politically weak; and to use the government’s own legislative and budgetary programme as a springboard for a new story about how Labour would govern differently. Ideally, the party should support both parts of this work with grassroots campaigns that reflect and establish facts on the ground.

Opportunities to inflict defeats on the Conservatives as and when they come along will of course be tempting. But they should be exploited within this overall discipline of principled opposition; that is, opposition that either delivers better practical outcomes for the people of the country, or builds Labour’s credentials as an alternative government.

Labour has a duty to take the responsibility of opposition seriously, and do the job well. The government has made little secret of the fact that its intention is to use this parliament to cement Labour into a series of choices and attitudes that will alienate it from working people. Its goal is to occupy the centre ground and lock Labour out of power for a generation. If Labour sets out humbly to rebuild its relationships with those people, and through this to shape a vision for a just and democratic economy, it will not only have renewed its sense of purpose; it will also have regained its freedom to act.

Ruth Davis is a writer, campaigner and political analyst 

Ed Wallis is editorial director and senior research fellow at the Fabian

How can Labour escape the Tory Trap?

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This piece was first posted on The Staggers, and is an edited version of a longer article in Fabian Review which will be available online soon.  It is was written by Ed Wallis, Editor of Fabian Review, and Ruth Davis.

Labour and the Art of Opposition:

It is five months since the exit poll that shattered Labour’s dreams of a return to office after just one term. Now, after an extraordinary and unexpected summer of internal debate, the party must face up to the task the electorate has presented it with for the next five years: opposing the first majority Conservative government of the 21st century.

The programme laid out by the Conservative party in the Queen’s speech and budget earlier this summer was designed to put the Labour party on the wrong side of a set of political arguments. The government believes this will damage Labour for a generation, and accelerate its decline as a party of the working class.

The ground has been laid for a titanic narrative struggle. The Conservatives will attempt to present themselves as the party of quality education, affordable homes and decent wages for working people. At the same time, they will encourage Labour to use its political energy on opposing spending cuts, defending welfare, and aligning itself with big public service unions.

This sets Labour an unprecedented challenge, because blanket opposition to the measures on the table will give the Conservatives exactly what they want, whilst risking mortal damage in the eyes of the electorate. The test of Labour’s skill will be whether it can use this hazardous environment to spring the trap laid for it, and instead establish a new identity and purpose that takes it beyond the government’s intended stereotypes.

Part of the response to the Conservative’s political gambit will be inevitably short-term and tactical. As well as the need to resist the most egregious legislative measures, the party will want to demonstrate that it can cause the government discomfort. But the choice of which fights to pick should be determined by the basic tasks of opposition: are there places where bad law can be made better, or where the government’s dominant narrative can be disrupted or undermined?

This requires looking at where the government is politically vulnerable, but also where cross-party and non-partisan alliances can cause it serious problems. In an era of rock bottom political trust, voices from outside of party politics can be uniquely effective in rallying opposition. The IFS, for example, will generally carry greater weight than Labour in determining if the government’s budgets really do ‘hit the poorest hardest’. Some areas of obvious potential include the proposed reductions in working tax credits, which have already been condemned some self-styled ‘one nation’ Conservatives; the EU referendum bill, where the government is inevitably mired in in-fighting; and the troubled and divisive HS2 project.

No doubt these upcoming battles are already whetting the appetite of some Labour MPs. But to succeed in the job of re-building electoral trust and thwarting the Conservative’s political project, there are also areas where Labour must learn a language of unambiguous support, like the devolution bill.

Labour has been comprehensively outflanked on devolution by the ‘northern powerhouse’ project. ‘Devo-Manc’ is a fantastic opportunity to build civic pride, spread power, drive efficiencies and turn around some of the country’s worst health outcomes. It is also an opportunity for Labour politicians to control significant regional budgets at a time when it is out of power in Westminster. Yet Labour has gone out of its way to find fault with the government’s devolution deal, too often sounding grudging and churlish. Instead, as Tristram Hunt put it, “we must shelve our timidity, match the Tory offer and go beyond it”.

But the biggest test for Labour will come in the form of the strategic elephant traps that have been laid by the Conservatives with such precision. While these are undoubtedly politically fraught, they also present opportunities for deep thinking about the party’s intellectual underpinnings. They are the prisms through which Labour must ask itself what it is for, in modern Britain?

The welfare bill is a case in point. One of Labour’s biggest strategic weaknesses is that it is seen as the ‘party of welfare’. As a recently unearthed memo written by Ed Miliband’s pollster in 2010 put it: “Labour is seen to have been a principal architect and defender of a benefits culture.”

The easy thing to do here would be to blame the right-wing media for promulgating a ‘scrounger’ narrative, attempt to reframe ‘welfare’ as ‘social security’, and oppose the cuts with a righteous fervour. The harder thing would be to accept that, when people think of Labour as the ‘party of welfare’, they have a point. Ultimately, Labour’s welfare bind is a reckoning with how it has conducted its core business for over half a century: the ‘end’ of a more equal society has been pursued almost exclusively through the ‘means’ of the tax and benefits system. The challenge for Labour is to develop a different answer – one that prioritises work and contribution, and reimagines the left’s purpose in an era of globalisation, scarce resources and complex problems.

If Labour were able to offer an answer of this kind, they would have a least a chance of defining themselves on their own terms. In so doing, they would also free themselves to exploit the Conservative’s weak flank: a welfare reform programme that leaves working people worse off. But to get a hearing on this issue will require a reckoning not just on welfare, but on the wider politics of austerity.

Labour must understand that the sharp differentiation from the government that the party seeks on spending must be found within a very shallow pool of economic trust; and that by proclaiming itself an ‘anti-austerity’ party, rather than laying out how it plans to invest in the productive economy, Labour will dry up that pool still further. All this points to the need for a political story that foregrounds the re-distribution of power rather than fiscal transfers; and makes the case for prudent public spending, focussed on areas that build the economy and have huge public support – like education, health, and essential infrastructure.

The government has made little secret of its intention to use this parliament to cement Labour into a series of choices and attitudes that will alienate it from working people. Its goal is to occupy the centre ground and lock Labour out of power for a generation. If Labour sets out humbly to rebuild its relationships with those people, and through this to shape a vision for a just and democratic economy, it will not only have renewed its sense of purpose; it will also have regained its freedom to act.

A story of hope and responsibility for environmentalism

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Ruth Davis and Nick Mabey

This article was first published by E3G as part of their post-election reflections. http://e3g.org/library/A-story-of-hope-and-responsibility-for-environmentalism

The surprise election result has forced some forced fundamental debate and reflection in the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, as they ask themselves what went wrong with their conversation with the people of Britain and what can be done to renew it?

Similar questions have been troubling environmentalists since the 2008 financial crash, which seemed to push climate change and nature conservation into the background of political life.  The 2015 election campaign compounded that feeling as environmental issues barely registered in the political debate. What kind of movement should we invest in, to re-connect us with peoples’ lives, and to enable us better to reflect their concerns and identities?

Slowly but surely, some answers are emerging based on pioneering work over the last few years. Whilst there is much to do, we believe the green movement should use this moment to welcome change and become more politically effective.

New ways of thinking, talking, organising and acting are all there for the taking, which derive their power from the open nature of modern politics.  Nothing is stopping us embracing devolution, promoting far higher levels of citizen engagement in decision making, and seeking out and working with a whole range of non-state actors in solving problems.  In fact much of the decentralisation we already see happening has its roots in the environmental and local planning campaigns of the past decades. We can choose now, to ground our movement in such creative relationships.  Doing so will be risky and ambitious – but it will also be fun.

But to make this our load-star, first we will need to acknowledge the fact of our own success – and take responsibility for how this success has, and will, change the lives of people in Britain.

Because with David Cameron’s re-election as Prime Minister, our country will enter its 8th successive Parliament under a Government that accepts mainstream scientific advice about the risks of climate change, and is committed to address them. We are still not cutting energy demand or reducing carbon pollution fast enough, but this is a journey that most other English-speaking countries would give their eye-teeth to repeat.

Moreover, it is a journey that reflects the distinct environmental traditions of both our biggest national parties – Labour and Conservative – as well as wide-spread public support for the protection of wildlife and the stewardship of our shared natural resources. Its tangible manifestations are not just the world’s first Climate Change Act, but an enviable network of protected wildlife sites; laws to safeguard endangered species from persecution; cleaner rivers and less polluted air.

Britain has also been a leader internationally not just on climate change diplomacy but on wildlife trafficking, biodiversity conservation and marine protection.

These are impressive gains – but we will only be able to build on them, if we understand that they also create winners and losers, fairness and unfairness – even vested interests on our own ‘side’.

Because when laws are passed that mean developers must minimise their impact on nature, we in turn need to help them find alternatives that deliver benefits for the wider economy. There are legitimate concerns around housing that need to be considered alongside our own.

When we advocate for increased investment in new energy technologies, we must be vigilant about how the costs and benefits of such investments are distributed, so that it is not the low-paid or struggling businesses that carry the risk, whilst the rich reap the rewards.

And when we argue for reforms to farming policy or fishing policy, we need to be in the room with the people who farm the land and fish the sea – accepting what our ambitions mean for their lives and livelihoods, and co-operating with them to find solutions that are locally grounded, and work for the all our good.

Where this happens, we can move mountains.   The alliance between local fishing communities and Greenpeace, championing a fairer and more sustainable allocation of fishing quota, has been one of the most positive stories of the recent election campaign.

And the battalion of environmentalists, businesses, consumer groups and anti-poverty campaigners pushing to make Britain’s homes warmer and our energy bills smaller through the Energy Bill Revolution coalition should be rewarded with equal success.

Similarly inspiring stories could be told about the work of the solar schools initiative, or the plans the National Trust are developing with Sheffield Council to renew and protect that cities green spaces. But this is only a start.

With a new Government promising significant spending on infrastructure alongside greater powers for our cities and regions, new possibilities open up.  What role can we play in enabling greater choice and transparency around this investment – so that the people of Salford, Slough and Swindon are able to shape their future energy and transport systems?

And as we debate our future in Europe, how can we make a distinctive contribution – not simply by insisting on the status quo, but by ensuring that the principle of subsidiarity is fully applied in our own sector. This would help us focus on the places where the EU truly protects our shared heritage, and strengthens our shared security and competitiveness – including building a European energy market that works for citizens not just utilities.

The environment movement has always been attracted to the local. Our solutions often grow out of a sense of place, and are built on a desire for self-sufficiency and control over our own lives, as well as the wish to tread lightly on the earth.  It has also always looked to the future and been both a driver of innovation and an early adopter of technologies that reduce waste and cut costs. These are legacies we can call on now, as our politics opens up to new forms of participation, and our energy system is revolutionised by the potential of decentralisation.  When these forces are combined with a mature internationalism, which fosters co-operation where it is needed to support mutual security and deliver sustainable development, we have a story of hope to tell that will appeal to many far beyond our existing base.

Over the years, we have made our case for the protection of our natural inheritance – and here in the UK we have often won it.  We have laws, targets, principles and policies.  Now we need to go out and show how these can work to make our country and the world a safer, more prosperous and fairer place.  This will require more openness to the concerns of other constituencies and people; we need to listen harder not just shout louder. Environmental issues are firmly at the heart of policy making. We need to continue to grow ourselves, so that the voice we raise in these debates is thoughtful, generous and fully alive to the common good.

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