Raw power: considering the pros and cons of Labour’s ‘clean energy’ plans
The Boris sideshow may reinforce the impression that politics has descended into farce, but even ostensibly more serious issues such as a Labour government’s proposed energy policy draw responses from ‘caving in to Just Stop Oil’ to ‘selling out to oil and gas giants.’ One of those statements may have more basis than the other but it’s clear some sober analysis is needed. Here we look at the pros and cons of Keir Starmer’s speech on Labour’s ‘energy mission‘ given to Scottish Labour in Leith.
It was announced in May that an incoming Labour government would block all new North Sea oil and gas projects in recognition of the urgency of the climate crisis. While welcomed by climate campaigners a number of important questions were left unanswered – what would Labour’s transition plan actually look like, and how would workers in high carbon industries be impacted. This gave rise to expressions of concern from trade union leaderships: GMB’s overt scepticism on the one hand, and a more considered ‘this must be accompanied by a properly funded plan for workers’ from Unite. The speech made by Starmer at Leith was aimed at fleshing out Labour’s approach to these questions.
The right stuff
First, it’s worth recognising that making this issue so prominent is a huge step forward in itself. Where the Tories treat the cost of living or climate crises as separate things, and have no plans to deal with either, Labour is with this policy linking them explicitly. That puts us in the position of discussing and debating a real policy proposal rather than abstract ideas, and that is a better place to be.
In his speech, Starmer correctly diagnoses the reasons for the current policy impasse that is paralysing the country: “This is about Tory ideology, of course it is. Their impulses are totally out of step with the challenges of the modern world. They still cleave to the set of ideas that came out of the 1980s: the dismissal of industrial strategy, the contempt for active government, the complacency that says only the market decides which industries matter for working people and national security.”
And in the broadest terms, before we look too closely at the details, the overall vision he sketches out of what Labour’s policy is about does hit the right notes: “a credible plan to manage the change, protect good jobs and create good jobs. No cliff edges…use the opportunity of clean energy to create jobs to deliver security and bring back hope to communities that got ripped apart by deindustrialisation in the 1980s.”
If one has to start with rhetoric to set the scene before getting down to policy specifics, this is actually pretty good rhetoric. We at GJA might use these exact words ourselves, but we would frame it as a call for a Just Transition, that gives unions and communities a strong voice in planning for jobs, skills and investment. We particularly welcome the emphasis on jobs. The question is what actions are brought into being by this analysis to deliver an active just transition?
The not-so right stuff
An unfortunate habit with Labour in opposition is that one can easily cheer their take downs of the (admittedly easy target) horrors of the current government, but then be completely underwhelmed by their own proposals to deal with the same issues. In this case the key problem areas are:
- Unfortunate nationalistic framing,
- Adherence to a competitive model of energy provision, and
- An overly cautious time frame that fails to meet the urgency of the situation.
There are also specific debates to be had around the use of hydrogen, nuclear and carbon capture and storage. But, as the speech addresses itself to the ‘no new oil and gas’ pledge, we confine the discussion to that area for now. The problem in the case of the three bullet points is that they all lean into the predominant Tory ideology and fail to make the transformative break with that ideology that is needed.
The repeated emphasis on the “British Jobs Bonus” (why is it a ‘bonus’?!) is an unfortunate use of language that echoes Gordon Brown’s disastrous ‘British Jobs for British People’ comments. Aside from ignoring the global nature of the climate challenge, the need for cooperation and collaboration, and the disproportionate impacts our actions have on the Global South, these words simply play into the Tory narrative of nationalism, fear of migrants etc. It is as if that were seen as the only way of connecting with working class people in the current political climate and is supremely patronising and misconceived.
The thing is, for reasons not related to that narrative, we DO want workers in the UK to have the jobs of the future producing renewable energy that is affordable for people in this country, just as every other country does, rather than transporting energy across the globe with all the problems that entails. It’s not the idea of doing that that is the issue, it’s the abhorrent nationalistic ‘us Vs them’ framing of this approach.
If we plan for it, workers in the UK will have jobs producing affordable renewable energy, building and retrofitting sustainable housing, driving public transport, reshaping our landscape, cultivating food and forestry, as will workers in other countries. Not every job has to be done in every country; we can specialise and trade and aid. That requires a conscious plan from government for cooperation with Universities (for innovation) with worker and community involvement to create the cutting edge designs and products the world needs. We will need to be engaged, trading with and supporting each other through the Paris process for that to happen in the most productive way for all concerned. It’s impossible for every country to set up its own autarkic supply chain covering every single component of an energy system, and it would be an immense waste of resources to even try to do so.
Adherence to a competitive model of energy provision
The other concern about the ‘British jobs’ rhetoric is that it is symptomatic of a wider theme in Starmer’s speech, and expressed elsewhere, namely that the U.K. is in a zero sum competition with the rest of the world. And that Great British Energy, while ‘publicly owned’, is conceived as a player in that competition. His sentences are full of Britan being ‘first’ to do this and the ‘best’ at that, as if ‘winning’ were the end in itself.
For instance, while saying how transformative Labour’s plans for British energy generation and distribution will be, he “warns” us that France, Germany and the US are saying the same to their people, that “some nation…is going to lead the world”, that “competition is fierce”, that it’s “a race we have to win” and that GBE being publicly-owned “is a benefit that so many of our competitors enjoy” rather than a simple necessity for any country serious about making the transition.
All this is said while in the next breath stating (correctly) that Tory ideas about the free market are finished, and that they are locked into the past.
A real worry is that GBE is seen as ‘priming the pump’ for the private sector. Starmer has referred previously to using public funding as a way of ‘unlocking’ private investment. This carries unwanted consequences – the spectre of public/private partnership and private finance initiative disasters, and the old ‘socialise the costs, privatise the profits’ trope – while not providing the infrastructure within which a transition to renewables and a workable jobs plan can be effective. This last would only justify the worst fears of trade unions whose trepidation is based on protecting the jobs of their members. It’s also a long way from what the public has in mind when it calls for ‘public ownership of the energy system.’ Ed Miliband’s idea for GBE as the core of local community energy projects is more promising. Some clarity about what is proposed for either of these directions would be useful.
An overly cautious time frame that fails to meet the urgency of the situation
The climate emergency is imperative; we have to deal with it NOW. Yet Starmer repeatedly refers to the need for oil and gas to continue into the 2050s, i.e. beyond even the Tories stated Net Zero target. This is to placate several constituencies: the media, the big energy corporations, some unions, and others, but raises a question about what we mean by a ‘transition’, and a misconception about why a lengthy transition is better than a rapid one.
We could start with a glib assertion: a just transition plan that protects energy workers jobs and engages them as they move from high carbon industries to renewable ones renders the speed of transition moot. We would argue that it is the role of the unions in the sector to themselves fill in gaps in Labour’s policy by securing the job ‘guarantee’, setting the timetable for transition, and recognising the urgency of the situation. In that context, welcoming Starmer’s promise that oil and gas has a role into the 2050s (‘whether we like it or not’) is misplaced.
A welcome union statement is Unite’s recognising Labour’s commitment to ensuring there is no ‘cliff edge’. Again, that doesn’t imply a transition of indefinite length, but it’s a good start point for collaboration. But there is another cliff edge to be dealt with, namely when does it become untenable to continue digging for oil and gas. At that point, the transition must be far enough under way to protect workers. And bear in mind that allowing destructive projects like Rosebank to proceed only brings that particular cliff edge even nearer.
All this is by way of saying that the emphasis on jobs and costs is good, but it shouldn’t drown out the fact that a just, fair and active transition plan is an imperative that we have to get on with fast.
There’s much to be concerned about in the Labour proposals, but that we are having real conversations about this is good. More importantly, there’s a need for unions to demand a worker led transition that actually delivers on the fine rhetoric in the interests of all.
Labour should convene a meeting with all the affected unions to make a concrete plan for the fastest possible Just Transition in the North Sea, to be ready before they come into office. This would serve as a model for Just Transition in every sector, from housing and construction to transport to health to education to everything else. That needs to include unions that are not affiliated too. This is about transition as mobilisation and, following on from Paul Nowak’s article in The Guardian last week, unions and the TUC must push for this if Labour doesn’t act on it themselves.
Sign up for the newsletter
Battersea & Wandsworth TUC
The GJA came into existence as a result of funding from Battersea and Wandsworth TUC.
The GJA is a loose coalition of organisations involved in climate change work. We wish to make it clear that the views expressed in our publications and activities do not necessarily reflect the position of all the organisations whom we work with. We will always seek to make that clear by listing the organisations that have specifically signed up to a particular initiative.