Save Yourselves

Jeremy Corbyn Is Rightly Talking About Climate Change as a Class Issue

Is Labour going to give the UK a Green New Deal?
14 March 2019, 1:05pm
Jeremy Corbyn MP at the Scottish Labour Conference Dundee 9th March

Maybe everyone was too busy listening out for headline fodder on Brexit or anti-Semitism, but it went relatively unreported that when Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell addressed the Scottish Labour Party's conference in Dundee last weekend, they spelled out a vision for a "Green Industrial Revolution" – situating climate change firmly as a class issue.

Closing the first day of conference, Corbyn told the Dundee audience: "It's working class communities that suffer the worst pollution and the worst air quality. It’s working class people who will lose their jobs as resources run dry. And it is working class people who will be left behind as the rich escape rising sea levels."

Despite its origins as a British idea, the US conversation around a Green New Deal – now firmly associated with everyone's favourite Democratic Congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – has left many on this side of the Atlantic wondering what a UK version might look like. Could Corbyn’s rhetorical shift to a "Green Industrial Revolution" signal an answer?

Like the Green New Deal, Labour’s green policies bring together straightforward climate measures – reduction of net emissions, a switch to renewable energy – with an emphasis on industry and jobs, and a transition which is fair and socially just. While Corbyn used his speech to reassert these commitments, McDonnell followed up the next day with promises of 50,000 new well-paid, unionised jobs in Scotland’s renewables sector and a call for the nationalisation of energy.

But as in the US, it might be the framing rather than the substance of these policies which is key to capturing the imagination of the public – and the Green Industrial Revolution has a ring to it.

It makes sense that it was Scotland, and indeed Dundee, which set the stage for this new branding. Once famously known for jute, jam and journalism, the city – which also historically enjoyed a thriving shipbuilding industry – suffered profound post-industrial decline and was better known by the 1980s for widespread poverty and derelict mills. As in many UK counterparts, the first industrial revolution brought prosperity and progress, only for it to crumble away, gutting communities for generations to come.

Dundee is something of a success story, with investment and growth in the creative and scientific industries revitalising the city and providing employment opportunities. But for those in communities across the UK still struggling to find an identity – or make a life – post-industry, the language of a new industrial revolution could be appealing.

While calling back to the role of the first in creating the climate crisis we now face, a Green Industrial Revolution firmly makes the working class case for tackling climate change. It’s an issue which has sometimes struggled to resonate with people’s everyday lives – an emphasis on high-quality employment can surely only help to make the connection.

And while Corbyn and McDonnell’s speeches spent little time on the constitutional dramas of Brexit, their Green Industrial Revolution gets right to the heart of the issue. If large swathes of the Brexit vote came from working class post-industrial communities frustrated by austerity and degeneration, the green aspect of a new industrial revolution might just be a bonus.

Perhaps most of all, the language of a Green Industrial Revolution communicates the scale of the climate crisis and the action needed to counter it in a way we have so far struggled to quantify. It became clear when pupils across the UK first threatened to strike over climate change that there was a disconnect between those who see it as the biggest threat to their future and the adult generation they accused of not caring enough and not acting quickly enough. Maybe that same disconnect is the reason Corbyn's Green Industrial Revolution made few headlines following the Dundee conference.

But if Labour can pull it off, truly putting working class communities at the heart of a climate change solution – and ensuring the rest of their manifesto follows suit – a Green Industrial Revolution could be one of the most exciting things to come out of Dundee since the jute mills closed their doors.


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