Alan Simpson

Some thoughts on Brexit, schoolkids and climate change

Alan Simpson
Some thoughts on Brexit, schoolkids and climate change

Parliament is locked into self-inflicted insanities. Instead of opening each day's session with the cry of “Order, Order” the Speaker should sing “Roll up! Roll up for the Mystery Tour”. At least the Beatles could claim to have entertained the public rather than bore half the country to death. Actually, that is unfair. What is happening in Parliament is closer to the Hunger Games than to pop music. The press coverage of today's Brexit manoeuvrings will turn out to be a documentary record of assisted dying.

Theresa May is already dead in the water. She just doesn't have anyone close enough to tell her. Instead, her internal ‘Jump without a Deal’ critics are the 'Living Dead' leftovers of the Thatcher era: those who would chase runaway free-trade fantasies into a world of unmanageable climate chaos. It is a world the DUP already seems happy to live in.

The Opposition benches aren't much better. Defectors to The Independent Group (TIG) call for a new politics ... one that would arrange the seating differently in Parliament. Brilliant. Tom Watson has also formed an ‘All Our Yesterdays’ group for lost Labour MPs; those who would otherwise wander aimlessly round corridors and tea rooms.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell valiantly tour the land trying to whip up optimism and thoughts of radical change. But behind them trails a litany of internal squabbles and half formed ideas. The Left needs a Left, but it doesn't have one. At a time that calls out for big picture, transformative change we’re caught up in a politics of personalised and polarised nit-picking. I am not dismissing issues out of hand.

But let me put them in context. In December 2004, when a tsunami hit the beach at Aceh, it didn't ask whether it was the Germans or the French who had taken all the deckchairs. It didn't ask whether bathers were Jewish, Catholic, Hindus or Muslim. It swept away all in its path. For those who could hear nature's early warnings, the only sensible message was “Get the **** off the beach!”

Today, this is what our kids are trying to tell us. But we aren't listening. It is what scientists have been saying for ages. But we take no notice. It is why Extinction Rebellion blocks our streets. But we stay inside. It is what nature has been screaming at us. But we choose not to see. Far easier to retreat into the factionalism of identity politics. That way, we can at least find someone else to blame.

Go back to the original referendum for a moment. Corbyn and McDonnell wanted Labour to fight it on a Remain and Reform basis. New Labour would have none of it. Superficial politics tried to sell a 'Don't spoil what we've got' campaign to large parts of the country that had got nothing. Division and despair told the system to sod off. Then and now, it was bigger dreams and bigger changes that were called for.

This is what the schools ‘climate’ strikers are also trying to tell us. Their call for ‘systems change not climate change’ goes way beyond anything Labour currently offers. Sure, it connects to the radical ‘democratisation, decentralisation and decarbonisation’ that Corbyn and McDonnell consistently press for. But Labour’s offers fall a long way short.

In Scotland, Corbyn tried to address this, putting climate, poverty and '50,000 green jobs’ at the heart of his speech. It mirrors the approach of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the USA. Her ‘Green New Deal’ Democrats also grasp that only transformational change will work. But this involves a fundamental rethink of economics itself: putting sustainable air, soil, water, insects and ecosystems on a par with the production of goods.

Jeremy and John get this. So too does the insurance industry (who can see the entirety of people's pension savings being wiped our by climate upheavals) and a growing cadre of local authorities and Extinction Rebellion activists. They recognise that constructive responses to the climate emergency must herald a new era of genuine citizen engagement and a shift into more ‘circular’ economics: one that lives within rapidly reducing, annual carbon budgets.

Labour's latest poster highlights the paradox we face. Promising “to grow the economy for the many” plays to a conventional belief that all we need is reflation and redistribution; a recipe for accelerating climate crisis, not avoiding it. Growing food, growing trees, growing flowers, growing social inclusion and interdependency will certainly be part of tomorrow's answers.

But just producing more ‘stuff’ - especially more polluting 'stuff' - will certainly not be. And this is where Labour must dive into more difficult debates. Slipped into the midst of Brexit exchanges came the Chancellor's spring statement. It should have been Labour's chance to platform an alternative economic vision. Instead, the Chancellor got away with murder; saying that from 2025 all new homes would have to be off the gas grid (in line with recommendations from the Climate Change Committee). No mention that it was the Tories who scrapped Labour’s ‘Zero Carbon Homes’ commitment... originally set for 2016.

The Chancellor sang the praises of eco-system repair, ignoring his own support for new oil and gas extraction in the North Sea, to fracking, and to ‘transferable tax histories’ that allow oil and gas companies to pass their clean-up costs on to taxpayers.

Hammond also promised to extend 'offsetting' opportunities for frequent flyers, brazenly ignoring the fact that offsetting doesn’t work, and that his tax allowances are skewed more in favour of the owners of private jets rather than the users of public transport. He lauds the case for airport expansion when, in reality, contracting the carbon footprint of aviation is our real challenge.

Scientists tell us that, it we are to avoid the first of the climate ‘tipping points’, we have ten years in which to cut our carbon emissions in half. Some say the time is less. There are no slow-track options left, but none of today’s political offerings take us anywhere close. Only transformative change will work. And while this must be delivered at a local and national level, it needs an international dimension too... which brings me back to Brexit.

The EU is a mess. The only thing worse than being in it is not being in it. Corbyn and McDonnell know that today's existential threat requires a new transformative politics: one that begins with ourselves but which must also be built in solidarity with others.

Across Europe, it is what the Left has been calling out for too. They just want Labour to build it with them from inside, rather than as the voice of the departed. This period ahead is going to be tough.

It will have to be dynamic, urgent and transformative. But these may be the only changes that can save us. I doubt the TIGlets grasp any of this. I doubt that Watson’s ‘Legion of the Lost’ gets it either.

But outside we seem to have someone who does. Her name is Greta Thunberg who began a solo protest in Sweden to warn about climate change. And in Corbyn and McDonnell she has two disciples within the political arena who might just make the connections the generations to follow us are calling out for. It is for them that Labour needs to be bold and visionary.

We cannot allow the moment to be hogged by pettiness or by Mrs May. Her day is done. Let the Beatles see her off -

The Magical Mystery Tour Is dying to take you away. Dying to take you away, Take you today.

Labour has bigger issues to address.

» From 1992-2010, Alan Simpson was a Campaign Group member and Labour MP for Nottingham South. He is John McDonnell's advisor on sustainable economics. Alan Simpson

From 1992-2010, Alan Simpson was a Campaign Group member and Labour MP for Nottingham South. He is John McDonnell's advisor on sustainable economics.