A Feast of Fools

What happens when politics gets lost?

British politics has lost the plot. Rishi Sunak isn’t a clever charlatan like Boris Johnson. He’s more superficial; a cartoon ‘bear with little brain’. His grasp of issues is mainly opportunistic. In climate terms, this makes him more dangerous.

Sunak’s wooing of motorists is an attempt to turn the next election into an episode of Top Gear. Don’t be surprised if you find ‘go-fast’ stripes down the side of Conservative election leaflets. Sod the planet, just strap yourself in and hold on tight!

Britain might be facing a soggy August but the Antarctic is disintegrating, the Mediterranean is on fire, flash flooding creates havoc throughout Asia and Northern Europe, and scientists call out for a new World Climate Crisis Organisation. Sunak’s answer is to make the streets safer for cars than kids. This is what passes as leadership.

Labour isn’t faring much better. When the High Court is to the Left of Labour on climate issues you know that politics is in a mess.

Unhinged in Uxbridge

Climate politics unravelled when the Tories hung on in the Uxbridge by-election. They ran a crude campaign opposing the extension of London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ). Labour ducked this challenge, never mentioning the annual 4,000 excess deaths London’s crap air quality is responsible for. Nor did it support Sadiq Khan, the London Labour Mayor, in his attempt to give Londoners a breathable future. Its retrospective call on Khan to ‘reflect’ on his ULEZ proposals looked pitiful.

Emboldened by invertebrate opposition, 5 Tory Councils took the case to court, attempting to block ULEZ. When the High Court robustly dismissed the case – bless ‘em – Labour officials were left wondering if they could expel the High Court, along with everyone else with a mind of their own. Only Sadiq Khan came out of this well.

Worst of all, Uxbridge provided a platform for the Tory Right to trot out demands that UK abandon its climate targets in favour of slash and burn deregulation.

Sunak’s response was to juggle with absurdities; promising net-zero in the afterlife whilst approving 100 new oil and gas exploration licences in the North Sea. This was ‘deckchair’s on the Titanic’ politics.

The real answer is to shift into radical policy changes now whilst navigating our way through the wild weather crises now surrounding us.

The Atlantic is almost 1°C warmer than it has ever been, with huge implications for carbon absorption and weather patterns. Last year, all areas of Britain areas broke temperature records. Now the Met O ffice warns that these temperatures will be ‘on the cool side of normal’ by the end of the century. By then, ULEZ will be the last thing anyone worries about.

Neither climate breakdown nor the need for a different economics even got a mention in post-by -election skirmishes. And for Labour, nothing that might imply a complete re-write of Treasury rules is even allowed to cross the Party’s lips. It will all end in tears.

Pro-poor, pro-planet

The challenge is to ‘badge’ Labour as unambiguously pro-poor and pro-planet. It can’t be left to Met Office reports to tease out the disastrous consequences of anything less.

Being fearful of the climate crisis makes sense. But progressive politics must offer ‘hope not hate’ alternatives. Only Ed Miliband appears to grasp this.

You don’t have to have been in love with Jeremy Corbyn to recognise that ‘hope’ was what he captured. Huge numbers filled their hearts with it and joined the Party. Some 150,000 who did so have left, not because the man has been demonised but because the dream is being abandoned.

Things can only get …

Both major parties are hamstrung by an obsession with existing Treasury rules. Each pays lip service to net-zero commitments but pretends we have more than a decade to deliver. Climate physics knows better. What we do in the 2020’s will determine whether we have a chance of avoiding cataclysmic breakdown.

CO2 emissions must be cut by at least 10% per year – every year – for over a decade. To do so involves re-writing current economic conventions; exactly what corporate lobbying is desperate to prevent.

The only pathways to radical CO2 reductions involve heresies that scare the pants off major political parties. Consider some of them –

  1. Nuclear is an expensive delusion. It won’t deliver any carbon reductions within this decade (and probably not the next). As the only technology on a rising cost curve, it will drive up people’s energy bills like nothing else. Far better to redirect nuclear subsidies into home energy-efficiency programmes.
  2. Carbon capture and storage is not much better. It requires huge government subsidies (and carbon credits) that will not even match the current carbon emissions CCS is designed to justify. Better to focus investment on innovative ‘on site’ alternative energy sources and localised re-use of emissions (and heat). Annually reducing carbon budgets would help drive this process.
  3. North Sea drilling offers nothing to UK energy security. The licences go to international companies who sell into international markets. New licences bolster corporate profits not UK energy security.
  4. North Sea drilling won’t lower the ‘carbon intensity’ of UK gas consumption. Britain imports a mixture of cleaner and dirtier gas supplies.

Norway’s is the cleanest (because it sets the highest standards). The UK could set the same standard (or import everything from Norway). But it won’t.

  1. (Green) Hydrogen will help with steel production but is an absurd option for domestic heating. There is so much over-hyping of hydrogen that there’s a danger of overlooking the few areas where it could make a real difference. The reasons behind the hype are all to do with justifying a continued use of fossil fuels and the corporate desire for monopoly control of a national gas grid.
  2. National Grid has to be fundamentally restructured, returning to its original role as Britain’s not-for-profit ‘strategic reserve’. Then it too must be given a statutory duty to deliver 10% annual carbon reductions.

Grid-locked thinking

Against such benchmarks almost the entirety of Treasury policies look like a bad case of rigor mortis. Sunak gave oil and gas companies a 90% rebate on their windfall profits tax if they invested in new oil and gas production! He also cut UK carbon taxes in half and increased taxation on renewables. This is a junkie feeding a habit, not a visionary chasing an alternative.

Sunak’s next distraction will be ‘pylon wars’. Thousands of miles on high voltage cabling are needed to ship electricity from off-shore wind farms to towns and cities. This requires hundreds of thousands of new pylons. Everything that was off-shore and out-of-sight suddenly becomes an environmental battleground. Communities are already mobilising to challenge the process.

At no stage will the debate even acknowledge that decentralised local grids may be a far better answer, avoiding the problem by rethinking our towns and cities as sources of energy not just its consumers. This was where Britain’s energy system began. Today, there are towns and cities across the globe reinventing themselves as clean energy communities. Britain’s problem is that this would break Sunak’s model of an economy dominated by off-shore corporate interests.

One advantage of making such a leap, however, would be avoiding the 50% of energy currently lost at the power station, and the 10% (or more) lost in transmission. Decentralised energy systems avoid such losses. Moreover, combined heat and power systems in Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands cut energy losses, carbon emissions and household bills in ways both the public and the planet welcome.

Money, money, money

Of course this costs money. But tot up the hidden subsidies Britain throws at today’s energy cartel and we’re not short of change. Then, to really put localities and communities in the driving seat, the government could revisit the increased ‘reserve requirements’ placed on banks following the 2008 financial crisis.

Banks now enjoy a profits bonanza whenever the Bank of England raises interest rates. This is because the reserves are held on index-linked terms. Removing interest payments from the banking safety-net would allow the government to create a de facto replica of Germany’s KfW Development Bank. Local. authorities and local communities could then access zero-interest loans to race into a zero-carbon, energy-saving, planet-protecting future.

When Tony Blair stepped into this debate it was to warn of the “huge burden” of moving to net-zero and suggesting that international diplomacy was the answer. What he overlooked was that is that huge transformations are already underway and Britain is off the pace.

Last year China installed more renewable energy than the USA has done in its entire history. Vast tranches of Mongolian desert is covered by dirt-cheap solar panels and wind turbines. China’s carbon emissions will fall off a cliff by 2025. Its huge investment in battery storage will allow it to cut energy bills by 20% and run off with most of the medals in the clean-energy olympics.

Back in the day, Winston Churchill would not have talked about the ‘huge burden’ of preparing to defend Britain. Nor would he have pretended that ‘Peace in our Time’ diplomacy was the answer. Nor must Labour.

Building a climate secure future will be difficult. It will be disruptive. It must embrace tomorrow’s economics, not yesterday’s. But it can also be inclusive, democratic and visionary.

There was a time when this is exactly what Labour was about.

Alan Simpson August 4 2023



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  3. […] blog is prompted by points made in A Feast of Fools by Alan Simpson, who was MP for Nottingham South for 18 […]

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