In these scary times it is hard to think much beyond the tragedy that is Ukraine. Bombed hospitals sit badly in anyone’s books. Flood tides of refugees shame us all. But if any good is to be salvaged it must come from a bigger political stock-take, not from token gestures.
Everything in this process is going to be painful. Every element we explore will see orthodoxies crumble at the touch. If Ukraine oﬀers a starting point it is only in recognising that answers will be built around courage, kindness and systems change. In that process, the Left must avoid falling into traps of its own making.
We can embrace legitimate Russian fears about NATO expansionism, but nothing justifies Putin’s carnage, his land grab or the desire to wipe Ukraine completely oﬀ the map. As provocation, we can (and should) berate Clinton for breaking the agreement with Gorbachev, guaranteeing there would be no eastward expansion of NATO. But NATO is not the central issue.
The Budapest Memorandum of 1994 is a more awkward starting point. In it, Britain, the USA and Russia guaranteed to protect (and respect) the former Soviet states that gave up their nuclear weapons. Ukraine was amongst them. The Memorandum specifically promised protection against military intervention or economic coercion. Don’t hide behind NATO. This was us, Britain and the USA. We stood as peace guarantors. All the aid or weapons sent today cannot conceal the fact that we failed to keep this promise. Boris never even mentions it.
Like Pritti Patel’s vacuous assurances of ‘fast-track’ visa processing for Ukrainian refugees, Britain’s security guarantees to Ukraine got lost somewhere ‘en route’. Like most of Boris’ promises, they disappeared into the ether. It speaks volumes about where we are as a nation. With or without Putin’s help, emptiness, shallowness and corruption stalk the corridors of British politics.
Maybe sanctions will pull the rug from under Putin’s plundering adventurism, but at what cost to Ukrainian life and livelihoods? What cost to global food supplies, forced migrations, polarised wealth, collapsing eco-systems and spiralling energy costs? It will take decades to repair. To do so, the corporate fiefdoms that have pocketed so much of the world’s wealth over the last decade must pick up the bill. Just don’t expect Boris to lead the charge.
Johnson’s government still suppresses the full report on Russian involvement in British politics. He will not want his most generous donors feeling uncomfortable. So Britain will continue to lag behind in the seizure of oligarchs’ assets. Great swathes of London could be freed up if we just sequestrated their mansions. The Tories had no problem seizing miners’ funds, but won’t do so to oligarchs. Money calls all the government shots, and much of it is Russian.
Nigel the Terrible
If Putin has helped create division and confusion in British politics, Nigel Farage has been his most enthusiastic handmaiden. From the Brexit debacle to the Northern Ireland border shambles, from the triumph of Little Englanderism and the demise of genuine internationalism, Nigel the Terrible has always been there to stir the pot.
Now Farage has resurfaced to front the Tory challenge to Net-Zero climate targets. As ever, he oﬀers a populist veneer to corporate feudalism. This is what we must expose, dissect and replace with a better plan. Let’s start with the most immediate parts of the crisis.
Energy prices and fuel poverty
Britain’s high gas and oil prices are here to stay. Don’t blame this on Putin. Only 4% of UK gas imports come from Russia. The crisis is more of a global reflection of post-Covid economics. In climate terms, higher prices should be welcomed. But this doesn’t pay people’s energy bills, cut CO2 emissions or end fuel poverty. What it does do is provide a compelling case for radical change.
When Nelson Mandela was President, South Africa established a ‘citizens right to water’. Under this, everyone had a guaranteed right to a quantum of water, at really low prices. Thereafter, charges rose progressively, reflecting an emphasis on saving water rather than wasting it. But to begin with, everyone got included. Britain could do the same with energy.
The initial bar could be set generously, protecting the fuel poor. Gas and oil companies – sitting on a profits bonanza from spiralling prices – could be told to cover the costs of a ‘citizens entitlement’ from profits, before any dividends or bonuses are paid out. They would squeal, of course. That too would be a bonus.
It might then force us to address a bigger problem. Although the world has seen a meteoric growth in the production of renewable energy, it hasn’t weakened our addiction to fossil fuels. From 2010-2020, global energy production from renewables was outstripped
by fossil fuel use by a factor of three. This is what every climate scientist worth their salt warns of.
Nonsensical claims about Fracking or expanding North Sea oil and gas output would only accelerate the race towards a climate precipice. Fortunately there are better alternatives.
If Britain installed a million heat pumps a year and insulated the homes they were installed in, this would deliver energy (and carbon) savings way in excess of any imports from Russia. What’s more, it would boost to the domestic economy like nothing else.
Skill sets, secure employment, the domestic economy, tax revenues to the Chancellor, rapid reductions in fuel poverty and big contributions to Net Zero targets – almost every box worth ticking would get ticked.
It is an approach that would also reverse Britain’s shabby record of improving its housing stock.
Abandoning the fuel poor
Despite the 2008 financial crisis, the last Labour government maintained a programme of energy eﬃciency funding that the Tory/Lib-Dem coalition never started to decimate until after 2012.
Post-2010, however, Britain’s abandonment of the fuel-poor was both relentless and shrouded in policies that combined convoluted bureaucracy and over-hyped flannel.
The government’s infamous ‘Green Deal’ captured the level of deceit that came to pass as government policy.
Builders and installers threw up their hands in bureaucratic frustration . Solar installers gnashed their teeth on discovering that PV installers (not the gas and oil sector) were to be responsible for home energy eﬃciency improvements. It was the daftest of approaches.
Today, in Italy, the government oﬀers to pay people for whole house energy-eﬃciency improvements. If you install a solar roof, insulate your home, add in battery storage and swap your gas heating for a heat pump, you can write oﬀ 105% of the costs against tax liabilities over the next 5 years.
Long before this, Germany used its KfW Development bank to oﬀer near-zero interest loans, over 15 years, for energy eﬃciency improvements and PV installations in your home. For ‘energy-plus’ improvements some of the loan turned into a grant. But here’s the twist. KfW delivered this through High St banks who they trained to process applications within a single meeting at the bank. Sod bureaucratic delays. If you have the requisite building and planning permissions, the form filling becomes short and simple.
And those canny Germans, understanding the vagaries of the building trade, added a second constraint. Near-zero interest loans are conditional on a post-improvement property inspection. Local authority building inspectors test that the work delivers ‘what it says on the tin’. If not, then the builder/developer gets stuck with commercial interest rate charges. As a result of the commitment to deliver low energy housing, German homes lose only 1°C of heat (over a 5 hour period) while the average UK home loses 3°C.
There’s no overarching problem in cutting domestic carbon emissions and reducing fuel poverty. It’s just that Britain doesn’t do it. Post-2010, every UK government promise to tackle fuel poverty has been as been as credible as its commitment to fast-track visas for Ukrainian refugees. To understand why, you have to dig a little deeper.
Carbon democracy: the oxymoron that’s killing us.
Timothy Mitchell’s ‘Carbon Democracy’1 unpicked the carbon politics behind successive energy crises. Corporate lobbying (and geo-political power play) has always been the central issue, not the interplay of supply and demand.
Carbon (as coal) was central to the Industrial Revolution and critical to huge democratic gains within the Labour movement. By the 1870’s, energy was no longer focused around dispersed, renewable resources. Miners dug coal in large quantities. Trains ferried it to factories, power stations and ports. Dockers shipped it round the world. This concentration of production and distribution also gave workers new workplace powers in the struggle for better pay and conditions.
1 ‘Carbon Democracy: political power in the age of oil’, Verso paperback, 2013
Strikes weren’t the only means of doing so. In 1889, Glasgow dockworkers won their dispute by working as clumsily and incompetently as the scab labour recruited to undermine them. Within 3 days their pay claim was agreed to. Similar gains were being made across Europe and North America. Carbon became a real driver of democratic improvements in society.
But from the outset, corporate capital worked to restore its feudal (sometimes imperial) control over markets and labour. Oil became the tool for undermining democracy’s gains. When Churchill switched the British navy from coal to oil, it wasn’t about making ships more versatile than their German counterparts. It was to weaken the power of British miners.
He also helped British and American oil corporates in a series of Middle East power plays. Exploration contracts were signed, but with specific intentions not to extract oil. Oil corporates wanted high prices and high profits. New entrants from the Middle East would only spoil the game. So rigged markets kept them out; propping up oligopolies and imploding empires along the way.
The 1973 ‘oil crisis’ did the same. This was never a simple supply and demand issue. Oil states actually wanted a resolution of the Palestinian question. Nixon refused, arming Israel instead. When Gulf states then embargoed oil supplies to the USA, American oil giants seized on the chance to open more costly wells at home (for higher prices), while the US arms industry split the Middle East in a series of ‘arms for oil’ deals with anti-democratic regimes. Carbon became the tool for weakening democracy, not strengthening it.
Corridors of corruption
Over the last century, whilst pillaging the planet, carbon conglomerates have become adept at milking government subsidies and tax allowances. They also, increasingly, became the authors of government energy policy itself.
During the period in which I pushed renewable energy into the Energy Act 2006 there were over 100 ‘secondees’ from Big Energy, all working as ‘advisors’ in Downing St or DECC (the Department of Energy and Climate Change). None wanted renewables, decentralised grids, energy saving (rather than consuming), or the democratisation of carbon reduction. But the options they opposed are now our only lifelines.
Forget the libertarian Right’s push for Fracking, North Sea oil licenses or wishful nuclear. Today’s imperative calls for radical decarbonisation, demand reduction and the decentralised/democratised control of renewable heat and power. And it has to happen now.
Technologically, all this is within our reach. But to rebuild the broken societies that surround us we have to break from the carbon tyrannies that, one way or another, are currently killing us all.
There isn’t a better moment to do so.