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Net-zero, not-zero and ground-zero

It may feel like Boris Johnson can do no wrong and Labour are determined to slip quietly into the night — but the government's promises on climate change are their achilles heel. We must hold them to account with a radical alternative, writes ALAN SIMPSON

WHAT a mess we are in. Labour loses the Hartlepool by-election with a 16 per cent swing to the Tories. A new north-south divide is opening up.

With the exception of London, Labour no longer holds the hearts and minds of its conventional heartlands. So much for new leadership, new vision. What on Earth is going on?

Ground zero: Boris Johnson gets caught out lying again. Those queuing for the sales in Primark clothing stores just shrug their shoulders. Nothing new there. Johnson is a “Jack the lad” with only an occasional (and entirely accidental) association with the truth. If they had a wish, those outside Primark would probably just want the queue to move faster.

Retail therapy became the high point of many people’s post-lockdown aspirations. Were they troubled about Johnson’s “cash for curtains” escapade? Probably not. Most just wished they too had “friends” who’d pick up the bill for £60,000-£200,000 worth of home furnishings.

The Covid crisis — its health traumas and lockdowns — has created a public weariness that will be hard to shake off. If just one sliver of the corruption surrounding Johnson had been thrown at Jeremy Corbyn the press, public and Parliament would have lynched him. Now we barely give a stuff.

Like their counterparts in Putin’s Russia, Britain’s poor have run out of energy for the indignation and insurrection needed to drive change.

But just in case they rediscover it, Johnson’s government of crooks and chancers are pushing through laws that would criminalise public protest. Privately they fear the emergence of a Navalny character… but Britain doesn’t have one.

Keir Starmer struggles to find a place even in the most boring Primark queue. No-one questions Starmer’s integrity. It’s more that no-one can imagine him getting the queue laughing or feeling upbeat. No-one knows what his favourite joke is — or if he has one.

This isn’t a trivial aside. A Liverpool childhood taught me the value of being able to look hardship in the face and ridicule it. There is solidarity (and dignity) that comes from using humour to put oppression and exploitation in its place.
At the moment, Labour seems to have lost the instinctive ability to enrage, engage, ridicule or inspire. It lacks the “vision” needed to lift hearts and minds to a different level. You can’t blame that on Corbyn.

Spend and spend politics

Covid forced the government to embrace a “spend and spend” approach to governance in order to avoid societal collapse. On the back of this, Johnson had the sense to throw government departmental offices out to northern outposts and hand baskets of jobs (and project funding) to his MPs in newly won seats.

It’s hardly surprising if Labour supporters decamp to chase the money too. Just complaining about “those horrid Tories” isn’t enough — especially if Labour isn’t offering much more than to tweak the system Johnson is already tweaking.

The moment won’t last. But just now it offers a lifeboat that seems better to be in than not. Britain will soon discover that, for all the miracles worked by health workers, the long-term underfunding of the NHS does not make it fit to survive another pandemic.

Nor have we grasped what the health cost of long-Covid casualties will come too. All this will come in as the collapse of yesterday’s economics and the arrival of tomorrow’s climate crises kick into play. This demands a fundamental rethink of almost everything.
It is debatable whether the Tories get this, but Labour certainly doesn’t.

Labour’s current standing appears entirely derivative. When the government makes an almighty cock-up — the supply of PPE equipment, track and trace, corrupt contracting etc — support for Labour rises.

But when something goes well (mass vaccinations, the easing of lockdowns in time for summer) Johnson gets all the credit. On the critical test of a radically different approach to post-pandemic politics, Labour has yet to even turn up. Inspiration, more than perspiration, is what’s missing.

Right-left confusions

It isn’t just the Labour right that is in a muddle. Elements of the left are too. You can see this in the anti-mask, anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown movement. Good comrades are now divided, with many finding common cause with the libertarian right.

This group sees Covid-19 as a conspiratorial fallacy, a pretext for state — or Bill Gates’s — control of everything, or for Big Pharma to turn the world into a giant medical protectorate, making colossal profits out of creating more ill-health than they cure.

Looking at images of the recent London anti-lockdown, anti-mask rally, I have no doubt the numbers were far greater than the police credited. We do ourselves no favours by pretending otherwise. My difficulty comes in setting this rally — and its claims — against the rising death toll in India.

People in New Delhi, Mumbai and Kerala aren’t laying their loved ones out on streets surrounding over-stretched hospitals just to get a photo. Funeral pyres don’t spill over from cremation sites into adjacent streets and car parks merely as a jovial prank.

India’s poor are not playing a collective joke on the industrial world, just to get media attention: they face a tsunami of death and devastation that might have been avoided had we defied Gates and Big Pharma by suspending the drug patents on all Covid vaccines. This is where the lines of today’s global battleground should have been drawn.

It would still need India itself to constrain the messianic madness of Modi and the denialism he shares with Bolsonaro and a clutch of other right-wing leaders. But for the left, the battleground would be about a global commitment to the delivery of inclusive healthcare; so much clearer than getting sidetracked into individual liberty obsessions and conspiracy theories.

A long and winding road

Labour faces a long road back into government. To do so, it will have offer a completely different vision, and a transformative timetable that matches the urgency of crises heading our way. This calls for a completely new, socially inclusive, climate economics for the years ahead.

The good news is that to do so Labour can shift the attack onto Johnson’s strongest (and most vacuous) claims rather than his character defects. The biggest of these fibs are about climate stability.

In principle, Johnson is right in pledging to cut carbon emissions by 78 per cent by 2035. In practical terms, this means cutting British emissions by 10 per cent a year — every year — throughout this decade. In practice, most of Johnson’s current policies are heading in the opposite direction.

His £27bn road-building programme now looks like a seriously bad joke. So too does HS2 and any gung-ho rejuvenation of airports. A new round of construction projects, based on “cheap” standards, would saddle localities with tomorrow’s “gas-guzzling” energy nightmares that will cost a fortune to retrofit. Yet these are the investment contradictions Johnson is trying to ride.

What he ducks, too, is the question: how will we pay?

Levelling up/ratcheting down

Labour would be daft to embrace Johnson’s “levelling up” and “Building Back Better” rhetoric. It is the faux labelling that Tories love; implying compassion for the poor, but without disrupting the rich.

Today’s climate emergency offers no such luxury. Chase “levelling up” without “ratcheting down” and the game is lost. But “ratcheting down” means you have to address the lifestyles of the rich.

There is a cruel symmetry to the current pattern of global carbon emissions. The richest 10 per cent consume 50 per cent of “lifestyle” carbon emissions, while the poorest 50 per cent account for just 10 per cent.

Britain cannot begin to deliver annual carbon reductions of 10 per cent a year without addressing both ends of this paradox.

A national “energy efficiency” programme to end British fuel poverty within the decade would make a massive difference to the lives, homes (and incomes) of the poor. A commitment to ”greening” our towns and cities would do the same. But the (corporately) rich have to deliver the bulk of the carbon savings — and pay for them. In doing so, a sackload of corporate fraudsters will need to be ditched. This is what Labour ducks.

Net-zero and not-zero

The first thing to go must be all the scams pretending to meet climate commitments, which don’t. An army of fossil fuel lobbyists have touted round “carbon offsets.”

Almost in their entirety, these are fraudulent promises kicked too far down the road to be meaningful; allowances demanded for pipe-dreams not pursued; gimmicks that create a casino for carbon credits; or just delaying tactics that avoid corporates being left with balance sheets of stranded assets.

Propping up yesterday does not make for a better tomorrow. Net-zero promises fast become not-zero realities; delaying investment in the Just Transition skills needed for the next economics. Climate security, job security, food security, energy and environmental security all require a quantum leap into more circular economics.

At some point, Starmer might get this. At some point he might see the need to put the inspirational thinking ahead of conventional voices in his team. At some point he might step beyond Biden, saying that the rich must pay their share — the lion’s share — of the transformative costs we face. Until and unless he does, Labour has net-zero prospects of forming another government.

Alan Simpson was Labour MP for Nottingham South from 1992 to 2010 — alansimpson.org.uk.

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