Lewis Bassett
Apr 19, 2019 · 4 min read

Corbyn’s Labour offers an outstretched hand to climate activists: they should take it

The climate movement opposing Heathrow expansion, 2007

The last intense period of climate activism in the UK came to an end ten years ago. From 2005 to 2009, activists protested new coal, short-haul flights, airport expansion and carbon trading in much the same way as Extension Rebellion are now.

At its peak, the previous climate movement involved thousands of committed activists, with spectacular direct actions capturing the attention of the media, slowing down airport expansion and helping to roadblock new coal. Yet after the banking crisis it disappeared.

Climate activists in 2010 found themselves increasingly unable to raise their voices in a political era defined by austerity. When “the environment” was all the rage, even the Tories paid it lip service, with David Cameron predicting the greenest government ever and rebranding their party logo into a tree. Yet when the sense of emergency that the movement helped to instil had died, the Tories eco-friendly rhetoric was quietly shelved.

Climate Camp activists joined demonstrations against the G20. Their voice was lost in the wider narrative around economic crisis.

One problem with the dynamic and anarchic nature of protest movements is that while repertoires of action can be traced from one period to another, the lack of institutions mean strategic lessons have less continuity. New movements run the risk of repeating old mistakes.

In the case of the former wave, direct action proved its limits, both in terms of the people available to participate and ultimately its capacity to stop greenhouse gas emissions. If climate change is the biggest collective action problem that humanity now faces, the solution will require a force capable of coordination on a scale far larger than networks of protesters. Such a force has to involve the state.

Yet the problem for climate protesters active in the twilight period of New Labour was the way in which progressive movements were systematically locked out of government, with the obvious case in point being the invasion of Iraq. New Labour’s regime compounded a longer-term hollowing out of democracy, especially economic democracy via the attack on trade unions and the privatisation of public services. No wonder, then, that the last phase of climate activism had an anti-parliamentary flavour.

That need not be the case today. Key figures from Corbyn’s Labour Party frequently offer an outstretched hand to climate movements. The party’s policy platform presents the most credible programme for achieving rapid action on climate change. Labour’s current agenda is based on a commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, supported by plans to bring utilities back into public ownership and £250 billion earmarked for infrastructure spending over ten years.

The party needs to go much further and its sense of commitment deeper, but it can only do that with the mobilisation of active supporters. Such a task requires climate activists to think strategically: will blocking a road win more support for this issue or less? Who is the action targeted at? What are the key messages? Ultimately, how can we win hearts and minds to a coherent agenda for change?

Insofar as they are inward looking, movements like Extinction Rebellion run the risk of making a fetish of their protest events: blocking a bridge takes guts and organisation, but activists have to maximise the broader pay-off.


The idea of a green new deal can offer the movement strategic direction by wedding bread and butter policies demanded by voters and businesses to the aim of rapidly decarbonising our economy. Unable to square that circle is exactly where the previous movement died.

In the US, where the young Democrat member of Congress, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, has championed a Green New Deal, the idea combines a commitment to 100 per cent renewable energy generation with a job guarantee program. It proposes to eliminate greenhouse gases in ten years while intending to “mitigate deeply entrenched racial, regional and gender-based inequalities in income and wealth”. These should be our ambitions too.

Regarding capitalism, the proposals are frank: as well as the state, communities and workers, we need private investors and the innovative capacities of business fully on board. Creating conditions in which public bodies, finance and enterprise can work in a mission centred way will be essential. In this vein, Labour have recently been considering how a future government could keep the Royal Bank of Scotland in public hands and use it to steer a green transition.

Those sceptical of achieving such a mixed economy should pay attention to the lasting opportunities for change afforded by the banking crisis. If according to the UN, austerity has been “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” it remains unclear what the economic purpose has been. Britain’s post-crash recovery has been the slowest on record, the national debt has risen under the Conservatives while eliminating the deficit has been an endlessly movable target.

The commitment to policies that were designed decades ago to lower inflation now appear archaic and incapable of promoting growth, as even the IMF admits. The result is that at both ends of the class divide we’re seeing increasing demands for Keynesian style intervention; yet it is by no means assured that the character of such policies will be green.

It falls to social movements as the only engine that Labour has to both see the party into government and to help push through a green agenda. This new round of climate activism is welcomed by the party’s current leadership to play a leading part.

Lewis Bassett

Written by

PhD student at the University of Manchester. Political sociology. Corbyn. Etc.

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