Air quality and climate change are the two great environmental issues of modern times, but a desire to protect and enhance our environment from the left of political thought spans centuries and predates the Labour party itself (see Robert Owen and New Lanark or Octavia Hill and the founding of the National Trust).
Three years after the 1946 National Health Service Act, the then Labour minister for town and country planning proclaimed the National Parks Act as “… the most exciting act of the post-war parliament”. This may have been political grandstanding, but for anyone in the Labour party to even consider giving environmental protection a political parity of esteem alongside the foundation of National Health Service is rather surprising, but perhaps not completely outlandish.
The forthcoming General Election takes place at the most unstable time for Britain since the election that brought Attlee’s great reforming government to power in 1946. The tragedy that was the terror attack on Manchester accentuates this fact. Prior to 22 May this instability was defined by Brexit, the health and social care crisis and the uncertainty over whether the United Kingdom itself will see out the decade.
Then the Manchester bombing brought the terror threat into sharper focus.
It’s fair to say that at this point in the campaign it would be difficult to convince a wavering voter that Labour’s stance on the environment – as a discrete policy area – should have equal standing in the political discourse.
However, there is a compelling case for the environment to be an integral and cross-cutting element of a clear vision for economic stability, sustainable growth and social justice in a post-Brexit Britain – and around the globe.
The Labour party manifesto for the 2017 election places climate and energy policy within the necessary wider context. Beyond pledging to protect the National Parks created by a Labour government (not least from fracking), it begins to build a vision for healthy and liveable places both here and abroad. Furthermore, the manifesto rightly warns of a Tory Brexit’s potential to weaken environmental standards.
Encouragingly, policy with an environmental hue is proposed within almost every section of the 2017 manifesto.
There are a range of pledges that will give greater impetus to moves towards a low carbon economy. By investing in renewables in the UK and moving toward nationalised utilities we will have more control over our emissions and greater energy security. Labour’s manifesto commits to international obligations to help combat climate change whatever the Brexit deal looks like. There are pledges to insulate existing homes and to build new homes to low carbon standards. This will not only reduce CO2 but also help tackle fuel poverty. There are also pledges on transport that will help to mitigate against climate change and make the air we breathe cleaner: all good stuff that might pick up votes, if only at the margins.
To achieve more than marginal gains will admittedly be a hugely challenging exercise requiring political will at the highest level – but the prize for accepting this might be worth it.
There are a couple of windows of opportunity that could open if pushed.
Firstly, on air quality, the political aim of the Clean Air Act pledge is to exploit Tory failure to fully recognise the threat of dirty air to human health. Where Labour proposes binding legislation to make our air cleaner, the Tories merely propose to ‘take action’.
Beyond a pledge to introduce legislation, Sadiq Khan’s approach in London could be seen as a national benchmark. The London mayor has been vocal and forthright about the government’s failure to act on air quality – and he has been heard. Sadiq has also been brave in ‘telling it like it is’ at the risk of being accused of fear mongering.
Tackling poor air quality will save the NHS money, increase productivity in the workplace and ultimately save lives.
Labour’s stance is right politically and it is right for society.
Secondly, on climate change there is a line of debate that could get some traction and add rigour to policy relating to global security and international development. This debate concerns the connectivity between climate change and global instability – and incorporates the incredibly difficult issues of international terrorism and mass migration.
There is an increasingly credible school of thought that climate change is a ‘threat multiplier’ and that the international obligation to combat climate change not only reflects a need to protect the planet from rising sea levels, the melting of the polar ice caps and dryer, longer summers; but also to protect us all from the consequences of these impacts, ie the social instability and inequality that global warming causes as a result of less productive economies, more scarce resources and livelihood instability. Climate change has been credibly referred to as a contributor to the Syrian crisis.
Tackling inequality in Britain is Labour’s bread and butter. By building a robust debate about tackling global instability caused by climate change we will give rigour to the party’s natural position as the party of fairness, equality and internationalism.
There is political capital to be made and there are opportunities to grasp. Air quality and climate change can and should be more explicitly ‘out there’ as distinct Labour causes. As outlined earlier, the left has successfully addressed environmental issues in the past, both for their intrinsic value and for the good of everyone.
Sometimes a bit of political grandstanding is needed. Perhaps now is one such time.