The Ship That Turned Away

Sometimes the starkest warnings come from events that don’t take place. In this case, the warning came from Honda’s decision to turn back a ship destined for the UK. It was the arrival that never happened. But its significance runs far beyond Honda’s current vehicle production in Swindon, Nissan’s plans for manufacturing in Sunderland, Toyota’s plant in Derbyshire or BMW’s production of the new Mini at Cowley, Oxford.

Honda’s ship was loaded with equipment needed for the next generation of electric vehicles. What turned away amounts to a bleak warning about post-Brexit Britain. It made a mockery of Tory claims that the UK will ‘lead’ the shift into clean (EV) vehicle production; phasing out fossil fuel vehicles by 2040… Ha! The game will be well over by then.

Honda has already said that by 2025 100% of its European vehicles will be EV’s. Other manufacturers will do the same…They just won’t be made in Britain.

Britain’s motor manufacturing is essentially European in character. Much depends on ‘frictionless trade’ – the free flow of component parts – across the European vehicle sector. Theresa May could deliver this – within a customs union – but she won’t. Instead, her Britain will hang on to a Reliant Robin manufacturing mentality when (metaphorically) others have already turned over a new Leaf.

May’s free-trade fanatics, locked into delusions of an imperial past, would turn Britain into a Trump plaything; ‘free’ only to be furtled, fondled and fully chlorinated in the interests of corporate America. It would be Britain’s road to Hell.

‘Honey, I shrunk the economy’

The bigger issue, however, is not just about motor manufacturing. Sony, Panasonic, Unilever, Barclays, Diageo, HSBC, Bank of America, Panasonic, Schaeffler, Dyson, Philips, UBS and Hitachi all offer similar warnings. So you have to ask where ‘Made in Britain’ figures in Tory thinking? This is a critical question because, in a world where low carbon economics will soon shove everything else out of the way, ‘low carbon miles’ (local production) will become ever more important.

The Tories don’t get this. As others race into smart, lean and clean, Theresa May would saddle Britain with the dumb, dirty and out-dated. This is where Brexit would take us. And as ‘decision day’ approaches, ‘hovering’ Labour MPs should ask themselves how cheaply they would sell Britain down the Swanee River in exchange for May’s cheap trinket bribes.

The government’s Stronger Towns Fund is a grotesque embarrassment not a lifeline. Even the BBC recognised that the pittances it offers are dwarfed by the loss of EU funding, in every region of the country. And this is before you add in the Tory ‘austerity’ cuts to local authority spending.

Theresa May’s is a government that would steal your shoes, offer you new laces, and call on the nation to ‘Rejoice’. She doesn’t add the word ‘Suckers’, but it would apply to every Labour MP who helped shoehorn her Dodgy Brexit Deal through parliament.

Those claiming it is the only way of avoiding a ‘No Deal’ alternative are admitting to cowardice not calculated judgment. May’s brinkmanship relies on support from ‘weak Labour’. But at its core her tactical interests are those of the Tory Party not the wellbeing of the nation.

Labour’s job is to sink the Tories, not save them: far better to have a parliamentary gridlock than supine surrender. Then, at least, the public can demand the final say.

Beyond the Emptiness

Labour’s real problems, however, lie in the difficulties it has had in setting out a clear alternative.

Some of this comes from the ruthless press pursuit of internal divisions (real or manufactured) within the Labour Party. Some comes from a Party reluctance to embrace the transformative changes Corbyn, McDonnell and the ‘climate emergency’ movements all call for. And some has to be put down to the shambolic mess Labour has made of internal messaging.

Labour support for a Second Referendum looked momentarily clear. Then ‘staff gossip’ allowed the press to turn a clear Shadow Cabinet decision into a shady tactical ploy which, in any case, might never have to be delivered. The process degenerated into exchanges about whether Shadow Ministers had ‘misspoken’ or been mislead. What a farce.

Historically, New Labour was never even my ‘last ditch’ preference, but I found it hard to imagine Alastair Campbell tolerating such a cock up. Within minutes, bodies would have been strewn across the floor. The press would have been left in no doubt what ‘the line’ was. Clarity (like it or not) would reign supreme. Instead, those now charged with promoting clear Leadership end up undermining it.

The Right love this confusion, but it leaves the rest of the movement – especially those who live beyond the parliamentary playground – in various states of confusion or despair. Prime Ministers Questions only adds to the confusion. The half-empty benches on both sides of the House testify to a ritualised event of predictable questions and Shout-Your-Weight machine replies. The outcome leaves Labour struggling to command a lead in the opinion polls when May can’t even command a majority from her own benches. Labour has to shift the terms of debate.

Pick your crisis

The latest edition of New Statesman warns that “Economic dangers are now apparent at every turn: a new global debt crisis, trade wars between great powers and a Chinese slowdown.” Bigger crises than Brexit are heading our way.

Put this alongside Aviva’s warnings that $13 trillion of insurance assets could be wiped out by accelerating climate breakdown, and you have a measure of why ‘systems change’, not piecemeal change is our only choice. This must become Labour’s offer. It is the message America’s ‘Green New Deal’ movement grasps, but which Labour hasn’t.

There will be no new era of buccaneering free-trade deals. The next crisis will be avoided by an economics that treads more lightly, delivers more inclusively and sources more locally, than anything we have now. Everything we do will be judged by the carbon footprint it carries with it.

What does that mean? Well, instead of arguing against Climate Change Committee recommendations that future housing developments should not be connected to the gas grid, we should ask ‘how is Denmark already doing this?’ We should ask too, what skill-sets Britain’s workforce will need to do so, and how the jobs can be properly unionised.

It means offering secure investment spaces (for people’s pension and insurance savings) in the development of tomorrow’s ‘clean’ transport infrastructures. It means making zero-carbon homes (and eco-house refurbishment) the benchmark for housing renewal … with a huge skills programme to underpin it. It means making long-term food security the centrepiece of our commitments to sustainable agriculture. And it means writing a different economics that puts back more than it takes out.

Say it with flowers

I’ve tended to say that the easiest place to start on ‘payback economics’ is in planting trees. It is something that can be planned and delivered in localities across the land. We can do so in ways that link generations and bind communities. But at a recent meeting I got pulled up by an Extinction Rebellion member saying “Too slow. Too slow!”

The objection wasn’t to trees, but the need to address the more urgent prospect of ‘insect Armageddon’. “Plant flowers,” I was told “…everywhere we possibly can. It’s the only way to protect pollinators that are at the heart of everything.” These must also be part of Labour’s Green revolution.

In the centre of Paris, the Musée du Quai Branly has a green wall made up of 15,000 plants across 800 square metres. By 2020 Anne Hidalgo, Paris’ Mayor, plans to have 100 hectares of ‘vertical gardens’ adorning buildings in the city. She isn’t alone.

Milan is tackling some of its air pollution problems by pioneering the concept of vertical forests (‘Bosco Verticale’) that wrap around residential high-rises. The city’s Porto Nuevo district has a pair of apartment towers where 800 trees and 15,000 plants are rooted over the towers’ 111-metre and 76-metre heights. It creates a 20,000 square metre area of foliage that is home to local species of birds, butterflies and insects.

There are similar projects in the pipeline for Switzerland and the Netherlands. And an even more majestic version, the Liuzhou Forest City in China, will have a 342-acre neighbourhood covered in 40,000 trees and nearly a million plants.

The point about this is that all parts of Britain could own such a vision; putting beauty at the heart of recovery. That’s what Labour has to reach out to. Rescuing this parliament’s ‘green benches’ may be beyond Labour’s reach. Greening everyone else’s must not be.

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