New Labour and the environment

Submitted by AWL on 28 February, 2007 - 7:06

By Matt Cooper
New Labour came to power with many promises — to save the welfare state, to end poverty and to stop the degradation of the environment. All of these promises have proved to be hollow, for much the same reason: the New Labour leadership’s slavish devotion to the free market.
This article will examine the development of Labour’s policy on the environment and how and why even these limited promises have not been acted on by the current Labour Government.
There are elements in Labour’s make up that have pulled it in opposite directions. On the one hand, Labour had been the reforming party, willing to regulate the economy and, to a degree, control capitalism in the collective interest. But on the left of the party there have always been those who are willing to subordinate profit for need. While this has always fallen short of the introduction of working class democracy and the triumph of rational planning over capitalist anarchy (the only possible basis for consistent green government), it has at least made the introduction of more environmentally- friendly policies possible. However, it is not this side of the equation that had dominated, but another element in Labour’s thought.
Labour’s programme has always been premised on the growth of a capitalist economy. With past Labour governments this was to allow higher taxes to be levied to pay for improved welfare services, and under New Labour as a good thing in itself. This has led to a hostility to environmental policies because they pose interests other than economic growth. Writing in 1971, the intellectual of the right wing of the Labour Party, Tony Crosland, denounced the emerging concern for the environment as an “elitist, protectionist and anti-growth view of the environment”. He suggested that environmental concern was an ideology of the successful middle class, who having benefited from economic prosperity themselves wanted to “kick the ladder down behind them”. In this, the right and left of the Labour Party were not fundamentally divided. Although the attention of many who claimed to be environmentalists in the late ’60s on their own rural environment and to the exclusion of concern for urban decay and working class gave the criticism more than a little validity, it clearly missed the point that the environment was a universal concern
Sectional trade unionism has often emphasised disregard for the environment. Their first interest is to defend members’ jobs and conditions, and often this leads to opposition to environmental control in their own industry. While steel workers were concerned about air quality, their jobs came first. The pre-eminence of production before the environment has been a characteristic of Labour in the past, it is all the more strong now with New Labour, which is much more explicitly pro-business and anti-regulation. This has been compounded by the perception that those who argue strongly for environmental policies are covering their own lack of radicalism with easy rhetoric. Thus the high profile given to environmental policies by Michael Meacher, Chris Smith and Robin Cook is often seen as their way of preserving the remnants of left wing credentials, a fake radicalism they can easily square with their positions in the Blair administration. In some cases this may be a little unfair, but in others palpably true.
Robin Cook, for example, wrote a critique of the left-wing Alternative Economic Strategy in 1984 at the same time that he was making his peace with the new soft left Labour leadership under Neil Kinnock. He criticised the AES for promoting economic growth and job creation at the expense of the environment, but the overall effect was to punch holes in interventionist strategies for job creation using the blunt instrument of the environment — rather than attempting to create a programme that would both create jobs and protect the environment.
The emergence of environmental thought into Labour politics was slow. While these ideas grew through the 1960s, very little of them found its way into Labour circles. The Stockholm Conference and the “Club of Rome” report The Limits to Growth (1972) did much to gain an international audience for environmental protection, and led to the formation of the Socialist Environmental and Resources Association (SERA) within the Labour Party. Its influence was however small, and throughout the 1970s became focused mainly on nuclear power, particularly because the 1974-9 Labour government was busily building two nuclear power stations at Heysham and Torness to the highly controversial gas-cooled design, and began planning the reprocessing plant at Windscale (now Sellafield) after a farcical public inquiry. . Although the Labour government did introduce the Control of Pollution Act, its attitude to environmental concerns was largely negative.
The audience for environmental ideas in the party did grow with the swing to the left in the 1970s The Scottish Campaign to Resist the Atomic Menace (SCRAM), set up in 1975, proved that environmental issues could mobilise public support. More importantly, SERA had worked with the Lucas Aerospace workers in their attempts to convert their industry from the production of arms to more socially useful products — an example of how a working class orientation could link trade unions struggles to environmental concerns. In 1981 this change in thought was reflected in the Greater London Council, the first public body to explicitly address environmental concerns.
A national environment policy
It was 1986 before the party nationally adopted a policy explicitly addressing the environment — in retrospect the policy was weak, but at least a first step. It was fundamentally limited by Jack Cunningham, who was then Shadow Minister for the Environment. His constituency included Sellafield and he supported nuclear power. Even after the Chernobyl accident in 1986, the 1987 manifesto only promised a gradual reduction in the use of nuclear power. Cunningham’s attitude to other fields of environmental protection was equally backward. His deputy, David Clark, did link a £10 billion for environmental protection with the creation of 200,000 jobs, but the party leadership did not use the plan
After the 1987 election Labour policy stagnated and events had to prod the Labour leadership back into action. Firstly, much publicity was generated by the United Nation’s 1987 Brundtland Report that argued for “sustainable development”, while the ozone layer and global warming were becoming popular concerns. In 1988, Thatcher announced her concern on some environmental matters, albeit a narrow range of global issues. Only in 1989 was Cunningham replaced by Bryan Gould, who while not left-wing was at least willing to consider some forms of regulation. In 1990, a policy paper was produced, An Earthly Chance, which, while an advance, was highly problematic. While the paper suggested that the environment being an overarching concern of government with a network junior ministers linking every government department, the document proposed that environmental policy was contrary to working class concerns rather than being only realisable through empowering ordinary people. It stated the party “must overcome our traditional image as the producing party, apparently giving priority to jobs and pay packets rather than environmental concerns. We need to recognise that some of our decisions will be unwelcome — at least in the short term— to some of our closest supporters”. The document went on to emphasise the use of tax measures, rather than regulation and planning, to attain its limited goals. Thus it would be the working class who would pay for the environment, not the profits of the capitalist.
It was not until Chris Smith became Shadow Environment Spokesperson under the new leader John Smith, in 1992, that policy began to develop in a more positive direction, and again this was more a response to the popular concern — this time generated by the Rio Earth Summit — than a deep underlying commitment by the Labour leadership. The resulting policy document, 1994’s In Trust for Tomorrow was welcomed by environmental campaigners as “genuinely radical stuff”. It proposed to create 50,000 jobs through promoting energy efficiency, a moratorium on road building, stricter planning controls and greater use of renewable energy sources. While weak on integrating these measures into an economic strategy that would protect jobs as a whole (the future of those who earn their living from building roads looked dim), the report at least began to highlight the right concerns, if not the policies that socialists would promote for dealing with them.
However, with the election of Tony Blair to the leadership in 1994, the programme was kicked into the long grass. Chris Smith was demoted to shadowing National Heritage and reactionaries like Cunningham were rehabilitated. In Trust for Tomorrow was effectively abandoned, and the impression of lip service was strengthened by the environment entering the shopping list of vague commitments in the 1995 rewrite of Clause Four of the Labour Party’s Constitution. The 1997 manifesto promised that the environment would be “at the heart of policy making” but, with the sole exception of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 20% by 2010, it was very short on environmental detail. The much trumpeted “integrated transport policy” was little more than these words, and a gaping hole existed where In Trust for Tomorrow had been.
Labour’s record in government since 1997 has been poor. The strong framework proposed in In Trust for Tommorw was abandoned and even the vague promises of the manifesto have not been realised. This has been for a combination of four reasons.
Firstly, the Government is committed to overtly free-market policies. The policy of privatising BNFL, for example, showed their criminally insane attitude to nuclear safety. It has now thankfully been halted by the results of BNFL’s cutting corners for commercial reasons even while in public ownership. The lesson that nuclear safety and the free market are incompatible has been writ large enough for even Blair to read it.
Secondly, were regulation does exist it is often weak, badly policed or, in the worst of cases, self-regulation by the very commercial concerns doing the damage. Labour willingly increased taxes on landfill dumping, but has given no funds to its policing. Thus unofficial sites, often containing hazardous waste, have proliferated, with the dumpers acting with apparent impunity or facing token fines.
Thirdly, in the Government’s attempts to be pro-business, environmental concerns are often lost. The Government has produced a great deal of hot air about forcing the privatised water industry to improve standards on drinking water and sewerage discharge, but has proved unwilling to force the water companies to use their profits (£2.1 billion in 1997) to do this. Instead the cost of improvements are passed on to the consumer.
Lastly, the Government is enthralled to what it believes to be a section of key voters, “Middle England”. When it comes to decision s about cars, building housing on green-field sites, the interest of such voters are put before the environment. The Labour Government is committed to allowing two million homes to be built on green-field sites in the South by 2016, yet Northern cities are becoming depopulated urban wastelands. The alternative to this would be for the Government to have an industrial policy that created jobs in the North, but this would be interfering with the market in a way that New Labour could not countenance.
What this leaves is a handful of initiatives that are more for show than for of any substance. The Welfare to Work scheme contains an option for 16-15 year olds of joining the “Environmental Task Force”, although no Government audit of the what effects this has had has been made, and the suspicion is that a small number of shopping trolleys have been pulled from an even smaller number of canals. Similarly the Government has encouraged local authorities to recycle domestic waste, although they have failed to offer funds to do this, while squeezing local funding in other areas. In energy, the acceptance of the commercial generators’ right to take commercial decisions has stopped the Government moving to any form of more sustainable energy production. In 1998, the energy regulator Stephen Littlechild backed the private energy producers who argued that renewable energy sources were financially uneconomical. The Government was left holding its very modest target of 10% of energy generation being from renewable sources by 2010, with no visible means of achieving it. Even at the Kyoto Summit, the Blair administrations efforts were focused on setting softer targets for greenhouse gas emissions in an attempt to keep the worst polluter, the US, on board; in the event the strategy failed as Congress refused to ratify even these limited targets.
Where the Government acted it is has often been under external pressure. The Labour administration used its presidency of the European Union in 1998 to announce that it would tackle environmental concerns. Unfortunately many other EU states took this much more seriously than Britain and demanded an end to dumping at sea, Britain now being committed to the very soft target of ending North Sea dumping in 25 years, and zero-radioactive discharge for nuclear reprocessing.
Into the new century
It is in transport policy where Labour has most visibly failed. Setting aside the rank hypocrisy of Johnny “three limos” Prescott, policy here has amounted to a combination of exhortation for people to using their cars less and increasing associated taxes without offering motorists any attractive alternative to their cars. The 1998 White Paper on Transport contains laudable aims of cutting car use and encouraging public transport but very little in the way of machinery for carrying this out. The privatised and lightly regulated public transport system is to be left largely untouched. The introduction of a “Strategic Rail Authority” appears to have been largely cosmetic, and talk of being tougher on poorly performing operators has been swamped by Labour’s new pro-business ethos. The White Paper suggests that future legislation will allow the introduction of road pricing but this amounts to nothing if not linked to a public transport policy, and smacks of a policy of clearer roads for the rich and poor quality public transport for the rest of us. The Government is thus left with no substantial policy on public transport. When David Blunkett, in March 2000, exhorted parents not to drive their children to school. suggesting they walk, cycle or take the bus instead, he ignored the real reasons why the school run has boomed: buses are irregular and crowded, the roads dangerous. The previous month the Government had backed away from an official report suggesting that reducing urban speed limit to 20 mph would save many lives. This is only one example of the lack of even small scale policy that has characterised this government.
The actual experience of New Labour has failed to live up to even the limited policy that was developed in Labour before 1997. New Labour’s pro-business agenda has meant that the Government has made a remarkably small amount of progress, even compared with other European states. Old Labour may have its problems developing an environmental policy, often reflecting trade union sectionalism and wanting capitalist growth at any cost in order to fund welfare spending. But at least the possibility of regulating and ameliorating capitalism was recognised. At its best, as with the Lucas Aerospace workers, links between capitalist exploitation of the workers and disregard for the environment was recognised.
In the first volume of Capital Marx identified the destructive tendencies of capitalism:
“All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but also of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility.
“The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth - the soil and the labourer”
What was clear in agriculture to Marx in 1867, should be clear to us now in every field of human economic activity. That there is a link between capitalism and the destruction of our environment is sadly lost on New Labour. Instead. Labour has engaged on the only kind of recycling guaranteed to harm the environment, retrieving old Thatcherite policies from the dustbin of history where the public thought they had consigned them in 1997.

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