How the Labour Party can include the working classes in a just climate transition

'Labour can demonstrate that there is another way, and make a just transition a central plank of its environmental policy platform'


Nick Harvey is a policy officer at the British Ecological Society

Pronouncements that environmental issues are a middle-class preoccupation, and that green policies will inevitably disadvantage the working class, are becoming common. The costs of environmental policies for working people are raised time and again as a reason why we cannot address climate breakdown, as if there are no policy programmes that could possibly address this issue. This has come to the fore in the last two weeks, as a few thousand people on the western outskirts of London, and political strategists desperate for any indication of what may swing the next general election, may have undone years of progress towards political consensus on the need for emissions reductions.

The Conservatives clung on to Boris Johnson’s former Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat in a July byelection by just under 500 votes. This was largely attributed to the Conservative candidate Steve Tuckwell’s opposition to the Ulez expansion and sent both major parties into a spin over the popularity of car and energy use policies. Keir Starmer urged Sadiq Khan to ‘reflect’ on the Ulez expansion which, to his credit, Khan has pushed ahead with. Rishi Sunak has indicated that the government will review the ban on new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, the phasing out of gas boilers by 2035, and energy efficiency targets for private rented homes. This may be empty posturing as part of the Tories’ strategy to stoke up culture war issues in the run up the General Election, but any reduction in the speed of transition could be catastrophic.

Friendliness with big business predisposes the right wing to delay emissions reductions to protect the profits of oil and motoring giants. This is usually hidden behind the insistence that it protects economic growth and jobs. But this time Tory backsliding is being justified by pointing to people who cannot afford to change their cars and boilers.

The irony is that it is the wealthiest who will disproportionately continue to emit if these policies are watered down but environmental problems continue to have the strongest impact on the less well-off. Those in the lowest income groups have the lowest access to cars but have the highest exposure to air pollution. It is the poorest households that have had to choose between heating and eating regularly over the past two years, and that will find a healthy diet even less attainable if food becomes more expensive. It is lazy and dangerous politics to use the working class as an excuse not to pursue environmental policies, instead of designing ways to bring them along. Public policy and money are crucial to preventing the worst effects of climate change, but also to ensuring that this massive transition is a just one.

Past economic transitions demonstrate, it is almost always the workers that have lost out. When Thatcher’s government forced the closure of coal pits in the 1980s, communities across the UK were decimated and are still suffering the effects to this day. Very few would argue now that coal is integral to the future of the UK economy, but the transition away from coal mining was the antithesis of just. There was no gradual phase out of employment and no alternative jobs or training was offered. Whilst domestic coal production fell sharply, the move away from using coal in our energy mix was delayed by decades. UK workers lost the jobs, but still had to breathe the dirty air.

We have to learn from past failures. There is no getting away from the fact that money will have to be spent in households to get the country to net zero, but tepid and poorly funded policy programmes inevitably mean that the working classes feel the transition is not for them. The £2000 scrappage scheme for non-compliant Ulez cars has been expanded to all Londoners, but this isn’t sufficient for many to fund the cost of a new car. Increasing this would be welcome, but even better would be a well-functioning and affordable public and active transport systems that would, at a stroke, massively reduce reliance on cars and undermine arguments that cars are necessary for all working people. The £5,000 available for an air source heat pump through the Boiler Upgrade Scheme still leaves households thousands short of what is needed for such a system. Increasing this, and confirming the proposals to force landlords to increase the energy efficiency of homes would shift energy costs from the working class to landlords and the public purse. The tools for a just transition are there, but they are being used half-heartedly.

The biggest worry is that Labour panics over one narrow byelection loss, learns the wrong electoral lessons and engages in a race to the bottom with the Tories. If that becomes a key paradigm in the run up the next election, then any chance we have left of reaching net zero in 2050 will disappear. There are rumblings that this might already have started as Labour has seemingly dropped a commitment to introduce clean air zones across the country.

Cutting climate ambition to the bare bones would be both environmentally and strategically disastrous. The environment is consistently rated by the public in the top three or four most important issues facing the country. Instead of playing in to the Tories’ hands, Labour can demonstrate that there is another way, and make a just transition a central plank of its environmental policy platform. Properly funded policies, tailored to those on lower incomes, can meet environmental and social objectives. More energy efficient homes stay warm and reduce energy bills, renewable energy and efficient storage stabilises energy supply, and investment in public and active transport reduces congestion, air pollution and encourages exercise. This can be an attractive policy platform to the working class, Labour just needs to persuade them that they will actually be part of this transition.

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