Beyond the limits of charm

He came, he saw, he hugged them.

Who would have believed Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell could carry off such an astonishing charm offensive at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton? Corbyn’s speech, in particular, was not so much a tour de force as a tour d’affection.

There were days when you could have been severely rebuked for such things within the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs. How times change. Delegates in Brighton found themselves in a Party rediscovering that it was actually quite fond of itself.

Those celebrating Labour’s return to anti-austerity politics found plenty to dine out on. Those fearful of such a shift could find little in the Leader’s speech that offered other than reassurance about their place in a more open and tolerant Party. Peter Mandelson even went out of his way to denounce it as ‘all spin’. Bless him.

But there are warning signs that Labour needs to heed, and to do so urgently. They come in the bigger challenges that were looking for a voice in Labour’s Brighton-sur-Seine gathering.

The next tangle in Paris

In a couple of months time World Leaders will gather at the Paris Climate Summit. The prospects are not good. On the day the Shadow Chancellor reached out to embrace all sections of the Party, the New York Times ran an article pointing out that the planet was not on track to embrace its own survival.

“…Climate Interactive, a Washington-based climate research group, found the emissions targets presented by China, the U.S., the European Union, Brazil and other governments, before the December conference in Paris, leave the world on a path toward 3.5 degrees C warming, compared with pre-industrial times… primarily because of emissions from the burning of coal, oil and gas.”

For the planet, this is ‘all bets are off’ terrain.

“Scientific models show that to stay below 2 degrees the world can emit no more than 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide... At the current rate of emissions, that ‘carbon budget’ will have been spent in three decades.

But instead of figuring out ways to divide that budget in a way that reflects each nation’s historical responsibility for the problem, level of development and other factors, each country is self-determining the size of its share.”

It is a recipe for chaos.

Even the Governor of the Bank of England is now piling into the ‘wake up!’ argument. As Corbyn warmed delegates with a re-engagement in conventional anti-austerity politics, it fell to the Governor to strike the more radical pose. At an insurance industry conference, Mark Carney warned insurers that

“The challenges currently posed by climate change pale in significance compared with what might come.

The far-sighted amongst you are anticipating broader global impacts on property, migration and political stability, as well as food and water security.”

If the Governor can warn us that ‘business as usual’ is a non-viable option, Labour has to go further and set out the big-picture alternatives.

Oh, Paris will produce an Agreement, of sorts. But it will not take the world off a climate-crisis trajectory. It will not disrupt the global, free-for-all business model. It will not set down legally binding constraints that put planet before profit, the sustainable before the unsustainable, and make ‘clean up’ an in-company responsibility.

Robin Hood and the living forests

Tens of thousands of those behind the Corbyn momentum, and millions more beyond it, are looking for a new politics of the sustainable. Corbyn is right in calling this a politics of engagement and inclusion, but it must also be the politics of transformation. This is the terrain – the moral and ethical, the international and environmental – that Labour has to occupy.

In doing so, the only viable choices are radical ones. In his Newsnight television interview, John McDonnell fearlessly defended Labour’s commitment to the Robin Hood Tax. What he had to skip past was how to deliver it. The Tories want to set this as trap for him, saying it isn’t a tax Labour could introduce without damaging the British economy. It is a fib. But Paris gives Labour the chance to define where the fib is rooted, and how to get past it.

Whether Britain could introduce a Robin Hood Tax on its own is not the issue. Eleven EU countries are about to do so collectively … Britain could make it 12. The truth is that the City loathes the very idea of a Robin Hood Tax. And their hireling, Chancellor George Osborne, will have none of it. Labour can nail this by pledging to make Britain one of ‘the dutiful dozen’ and challenging the Tories to do so now.

This is not just about European solidarity, but a wider solidarity that Labour needs to embrace. The tax would deliver the financial resources Europe currently lacks to adequately respond even to today’s refugee crisis. A fund drawn from the speculative free-movement of capital could pay countries doing the most to respond to the forced movements of people; anti-austerity on an international scale.

The Paris Connection is that such an international tax mechanism could also fund the climate change/clean development programmes that the Global South cries out for. You could even channel it through the UN, ensuring rich nations didn’t just pocket the money for themselves. A whole raft of radical carbon-reduction measures would then become within reach of the disadvantaged poor. This is what the world should be demanding from Paris.

The Sherwood Forest connection

Back at home, Labour might also learn something from Robin’s experience in his own back yard.

Nottingham City Council has launched its own Robin Hood Energy Company. It is a massive achievement for any local authority to get through the regulatory nightmare of obtaining a Suppliers Licence. But it is not a game changer.

Leave aside the criticism that, in Nottingham at least, Robin is reliant on dirty energy rather than clean, the real problem is that it is illegal for the City to sell its electricity to local people; at least not at prices that could radically cut local electricity bills. This is the reality of today’s rigged UK energy market.

Other countries may allow localities to deliver increased energy security by generating their own ‘clean’ energy, storing and sharing it locally, and selling it back to themselves at lower prices… but not Britain. Big energy runs the game, dictates the prices and walks off with all the subsidies.

The Chancellor’s current plan to turn Britain’s renewable energy policies into a complete car crash, come at a time when he happily throws seven times more subsidies at non-renewable energy than renewables, and strips people of their right to oppose dirty energy schemes.

All this is what the Corbyn manifesto promised to overturn. What Labour has to grasp is that this isn’t just a Departmental thing but a fundamental re-think of government and economics in the 21st century. Scientists tell us the world is only really secure within atmospheric carbon limits of 350 parts per million. We are now at over 400.

Going forward, the social/business/environmental models we need are all ‘payback’ ones. They are also the models in which we can lead better, more secure, lives than today.

Corbyn will discover that he has millions of voices longing to join him in this challenge. But there is a lesson he has to learn. Jeremy cannot just facilitate this debate, he has to lead it.

Transformation only comes along with a clear vision and the courage to lead. Right now, it is the planet that needs the hug… and it needs leaders willing to drive the changes that may yet save us all. Can Jeremy do it?

As the campaign slogans said “Jezz We Can”. They had better be right.

Alan Simpson

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