Keeping the Green New Deal alive in the face of opposition, and finding routes to develop it while out of power, will be a key task for the left in the coming years.
Early February marked one year since Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey introduced a resolution entitled 'Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal' to the United States House of Representatives. (1) The reaction to the resolution was sensational, with activists swarming social media to rejoice, while the Republican Party, media and even the Democratic Leader of the House sought to immediately quell the noise by denigrating and deliberately misrepresenting its content. The extent to which, in the 365 or so days since, the Green New Deal has soared from being a fringe activist demand to become a core political programme among opposition parties on both sides of the Atlantic is astonishing.
In the UK general election of December 2019, the Green New Deal (GND) - or something akin to it - stood trial for the first time as an election commitment from a major political party. On the heels of months of dedicated campaigning on climate from the Labour membership, the party's manifesto opened with a lengthy chapter outlining what they termed the 'Green Industrial Revolution' (GIR). The GIR policy programme was as ambitious as it was detailed; it featured innovative policies for reindustrialising 'left-behind' regions with green manufacturing hubs in electric vehicles or renewable energy technology, as well as designs for community-owned offshore wind farms, and a national home-retrofitting plan. The GIR was popular among Labour members, and its individual components polled well among the wider electorate.
Then came the election day, and an historic defeat for the party. In the wake of the loss, proponents of the GND have had to grapple with the idea that the GND failed its first test at the polls, and to ask themselves: what now? The lure of the centre is evidently strong for many. For the climate movement, this temptation would entail abandoning the GND and pivoting instead to support for discrete, technical, and supposedly palatable proposals in the hopes of cutting carbon where we can.
This temptation must be resisted. First, because it is borne of an understandable but ultimately flawed interpretation of the election result. Second, because our ability to mitigate the worst impacts of climate and environmental breakdown will depend on having a solution that matches the scale of the challenge, and is directed at the problem's source, rather than its symptoms. However, the implications of a decision to hold firm to the mast of the GND are not immediately clear. Just what are the obstacles and opportunities for a radical justice-based movement under the purview of a hostile and unpredictable national government? It is to this last point that I devote the most time here, in part because the election has been dealt with incisively elsewhere, and in part because it is the direction of travel in which the essential ideas of Green New Deal points us that will come to define urgent climate action in the coming years.
Few would disagree that the climate crisis failed to take hold as a key issue in the general election. A series of pre-election polls showed unprecedented concern over climate change and support for bold action to tackle it, with more than two-thirds of voters in battleground constituencies like Workington and Don Valley stating that climate change would influence how they voted. (2) However, amidst a perfect storm of dynamics including Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn's unpopularity, in many cases this concern did not manifest itself in a decision at the ballot box. And although the election saw a world first in a televised leaders' climate debate, the questions were stale and technocratic, and Boris Johnson declined to even turn up. His replacement in the debate with a slowly melting ice sculpture - however amusing - was emblematic of the lack of seriousness with which the most pressing issue of our time was treated throughout the campaign.
Despite forming a cornerstone of both the Labour and Green Party manifestos, the GND itself scarcely had a hearing. The Labour Party opened its manifesto with the GIR, and framed the document's extensive contents around its plan for a decarbonised economy. However, for much of the campaign itself, the GIR was confined to the page. When it was given airtime, its policies were announced individually, reduced to a 'series of retail offers' rather than a comprehensive plan, and generally championed by Rebecca Long-Bailey, the Shadow Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. (3) This choice of messenger was logical: Long-Bailey led the development of the GIR policies. However, it also had the effect of siloing the climate crisis to a specific brief, rather than conveying it as a fundamental and economy-defining challenge, and the lens through which the rest of a Labour government's actions would be designed and appraised.
This failure in communication also points to a more essential problem, which is that the GIR is not the GND, however often the terms may be interchanged by activists, politicians or the media. Indeed, the GIR-GND sleight of hand is not just an issue of name; rather, it obscures essential differences between the two programmes - differences which should be made visible if the GND is to survive.
What really is the Green New Deal, and did it ever really exist?
The GIR was a suite of innovative and detailed policies designed to trigger a 'green industrial revolution' through a programme of investment in renewables and EV manufacturing; decarbonising energy and heating; and retrofitting the nation's housing stock. The programme was designed with social aims in mind, promising to eliminate fuel poverty; deliver jobs and prosperity to post-industrial regions; support public and community-owned services; tax major polluters; and ensure workers in high-carbon industries helped lead the rapid transition to a net-zero economy. It even made gestures toward a strengthened...