Fears of species extinction at the Labour party conference have been uncommonly domestic in Brighton. Concern for the future of the nocturnal Aye-Aye, the exotic White Rhino or the fate of the climate, have all come a distant second to the survival of the party itself.
Ed Miliband, at least, has tried to combine the two. Roving the corridors of the conference secure zone like a modern political hunter gatherer, and making constant forays out on to the more threatening savannah of the fringe scene, Miliband has sought to muster support both for the government and for a bigger public campaign for action on climate change.
But what lies behind his relatively fruitless search this year goes a long way to explain the government’s own malaise and that of the environment more broadly. Speaking on the BBC’s Newsnight programme shortly before the conference began, Miliband defended his and the government’s role on climate change by saying that they were in the “business of persuasion”. It made it sound as if he thought he was in advertising, rather than in government, when the job is to lead.
Seeing the herds of suited corporate lobbyists and party apparatchiks drift with dutiful reluctance from venue to venue, as they know their efforts here are probably wasted, it’s to see how both the party and the planet got into such a mess.
In the place of passion, belief and real human connection a dreadful pall of technocratic managerialism descends over proceedings. In this landscape, any vision of a genuinely better world gets trampled beneath the suited herd as they periodically migrate between parties who manage business-as-usual with greater or lesser degrees of success.
The prospect of political ecosystem collapse does, though, seem to loosen some of the shackles of ministerial office. Hilary Benn, speaking, appropriately for this article, at an event organised by the trade body for chartered accountants, undoubtedly understood that nothing short of a rapid and revolutionary change in the UK’s over-consuming lifestyles will stave off disaster. It’s just that, even now, he can’t draw the logical conclusions because it would mean the opposite of technocratic tinkering. It would mean fundamental economic change.
In the last few months, however, a succession of great and good outside the party have begun to mention just this. From the Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz to French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and the UK’s own Lord Stern to Lord Turner of the Financial Services Authority and formerly the UK climate change committee, the environmentally destructive doctrine of indefinite economic growth is finally being mentioned.
The Labour party though, still clinging to its faded “business-friendly” rebranding of more than a decade ago, seems unable to stop fighting the last war and move on. Joan Ruddock, the minister for climate change and energy, for example, had a few uncomfortable minutes defending the government’s disproportionate support for banks and the City, in comparison to the shockingly low levels of new and additional spending on any green stimulus. The last budget provided only a fraction in new green spending of what the City will still be allowed to pay itself in bonuses this year. Alistair Darling’s last-minute reinvention at conference as a bonus-basher looked like the worst kind of hollow gesture politics.
Everywhere you see the problem of skewed priorities. Where its friends in the City were concerned, the government calculated precisely what it thought was needed to preserve a failed and self-serving banking system. Where the environment has been concerned, it has largely been dragged by external pressure to doing just what it could get away with. This explains why, alongside the climate targets and initiatives for renewable energy, it is still building roads, new airport runways and coal-fired power stations. It’s a contradiction they cannot escape, and a prime example of the contradictions that are killing Labour.
Charles Clarke revealed one vein of antipathy to the green movement that is still deep in Labour, and chose to blame the messengers. Clearly irked by Miliband’s encouragement for the public to protest more (old ministerial portfolios are hard to shake) he complained about environmentalists being anti-science and anti-progress. A frustrated audience cried back that an awful lot of environmentalists were scientists, and that it was the greens that often put science on the public agenda. Progress, too, is surely about not putting the concerns of political, public image management above destroying your ecological life support systems. Slightly flustered, Clarke veered off into discussion of “genetically modified organisations”. Either it was an indication of how far Labour will have to go to survive, or the suspicion that the already modified Conservatives, meeting in Manchester next week, are using crafty new tricks to take over and dominate the political ecosystem.