Antigonish Labour?

Labour is lost. I say this in sadness more than anger. Anger is no substitute for answers. It clouds the fact that the Left could be just as lost as the Right.

Boris Johnson has bought himself some ill-deserved credibility; slowly loosening the lockdown rules and stepping up the vaccination programme. Both are welcome. But they mask his abject failure to have tackled the start of the pandemic using interventionist measures to dramatically reduce its body count and devastation. Don’t even ask about ‘Track and Trace’, or how much Dido Harding is paid for the Tory shambles behind it.

At some point there will be a reckoning for both the cock-ups and the patronage politics Johnson’s Ministers have embedded within government contracting … but not right now. For the moment, most people are pulling together whatever loose ends of life they can lay their hands on. But this is not a justification for the loose ends Leadership Labour is offering.

Most of the bigger picture thinking about the nature of post-pandemic life now comes from outside the Labour Party, rather than within it. To engage with big, transformative ideas people turn to TED Talks, not Labour policy papers or personal announcements.

I genuinely wanted Keir Starmer to be a gateway into the transformative, but he isn’t. I have no illusions about Keir being a visionary Leader in himself. I just thought he’d have the sense to surround himself with those who grasped the scale of changes we must embrace. He hasn’t. On all of the biggest challenges of our time, Keir has yet to turn up.

Just as sad are the half-endorsements of half-formed ideas that come in from the Left. Andrew Fisher’s response to Keir’s policy reset speech was an indication of how off-track Labour has become. Writing for i-news, Fisher said –

“Today was about defining Starmer as the new Clement Attlee the man to trust to lead Britain to a better future. The state must be more active, with business and trade unions in a supporting role, austerity must be jettisoned and it is no time for pay freezes for key workers. It might not have been McDonnell-esque but it was bolder than Ed Miliband ever managed in his leadership.”

This was less than kind to Miliband and said more about the cul-de-sac both Left and Right are trapped in. Andrew Fisher is a bright, committed welfare economist; an inestimable asset, if the world wasn’t about to tip over a climate cliff. But this is the tragedy behind both Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and Keir’s. Neither have grasped that a succession of unavoidable crises requires a complete re-write of economics itself.

It isn’t enough to talk about fairness and inclusion. Security and survival depend on so much more…with climate at the absolute centre of it. Keir’s single mention of climate was a measure of how off piste Labour thinking still is.

Labour must accept that the not-normal is now the new normal. Johnson’s talk of ‘Building Back Better’ is as nonsensical as his delusions about delivering a ‘world beating economy’. Labour’s starting point needs to be within a different framework of economics; one that cuts carbon emissions in half (year on year) by the end of the decade.

You won’t get into tomorrow’s economics through a £26bn roads programme, a continuation of fossil fuel subsidies/tax allowances, planning permission for a new coal mine, a Green Homes Grant sunk by government incompetence and bureaucracy, building programmes that rely on air conditioning and/or connection to the gas grid, carbon intensive food systems, or the carbon legacy of HS2. Saying this upsets Labour traditionalists as much as Tory free-marketeers.

To get into an alternative vision requires far more than Keir’s ‘British Recovery Bond’. As a model, it falls far short of Green ISA proposals consistently advocated by Tax Justice campaigners Richard Murphy and Colin Hines. They, at least, grasp that all ‘recovery’ investment has to be carbon-impact assessed. They grasp, too, how the scale of investment can be multiplied by Green QE and Bank of England underwriting of the Green ISAs. But even this sits within narrow limits.

As we come out of the pandemic lockdown, it isn’t enough to talk about measures through which those who have saved some money during the lockdown can be encouraged to invest in rescuing those who haven’t. It is politically negligent for Labour to offer such a narrow vision.

My ‘Rescuing the Green New Deal’1 pamphlet illustrates the extent to which the pandemic widened the chasm dividing the (corporately) rich from the rest. In the 3 months leading up to July 2020, billionaire wealth in the USA increased by 27%, largely through government stimulus measures. Johnson’s rescue packages in the UK went into the same pockets.

A credible Labour recovery platform must begin by addressing wealth’s chasms, not the cracks between those with something and those with nowt. Lift the lid and you invariably find that the chasms themselves are reinforced by abilities to avoid paying tax at all. This has to be the foundation (but not the finish point) of any Labour redistributive economics.

The cornerstones of tomorrow’s climate economics begin from an acceptance that yesterday’s economics is dead. A different one must be written.

• Circularity and inclusion have to replace ‘growth’ obsessions.

• Reduced product-miles and the localisation of markets (and accountability) will be key tools in delivering carbon reduction.

• Saving energy rather than squandering it will create new markets in non-consumption, and

• Putting back more than we take out will restore our connectedness to the ecosystems on which life depends.

All this, and more, is already part of the exciting discussions taking place within communities across the land. It isn’t waiting for a Labour lead, just a Labour Leader (and Party) that turns up. For both Left and Right, this is rapidly becoming Labour’s Antigonish challenge.

Alan Simpson March 2021

1 ‘Rescuing the Green New Deal’; Preventing cheap politics from sinking the planet. Feb 2021,


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