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The progressive dilemma: Is there a route back to power?

The progressive dilemma: Is there a route back to power?

Dan Jarvis, Chukka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Rachel Reeves, Tristram Hunt, Norman Lamb, Tim Farron, Stella Creasy

Dan Jarvis, Chukka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Rachel Reeves, Tristram Hunt, Norman Lamb, Tim Farron, Stella Creasy

Progressive politics, that is the centre-left in British politics, is currently at its lowest ebb for several decades. For many, the outlook feels uncertain, if not bleak.

It is wrong however to look to Corbyn’s surprise rise last year as a singular moment of defeat. The truth is progressive politics has been in decline for some time.

First, Cameron’s victory over Brown in 2010, following the crash of 2008, brought a formal end to the New Labour era. Failing to win that election outright, the Conservative’s real victory, however, has been in its sustained and devastating assault on Labour’s claim to economic competence, something fundamental to Blair and Brown’s success. Under fire, Labour’s progressives have too readily accepted this negative re-telling of their legacy.

Second, the SNP’s victory over progressives in Scotland, first gaining control of the Scottish Parliament in 2007 and then all but wiping out the other parties north of the border at the 2015 General Election. If there had ever been a warning sign for progressives that there was trouble afoot, the appetite for change (disguised as nationalism) that lay behind the rise of the SNP was it. It could be argued that Salmond/Sturgeon have already pulled off the shift to the left in Scottish politics that Corbyn now seeks to achieve for Labour.

Third, the near destruction of the Liberal Democrats (the other progressive party) last year. In practice, their support and local government powerbase had been in terminal decline every year since the party entered coalition and were unable to deliver the “change” they had promised. But the 2015 General Election wrenched the party of the “liberal centre” from a position of real power, and left them to a harsh fight for their very survival.

Fourth, Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour Party and determination to reclaim the party for socialism. Many progressive Labour MPs remain in parliament, but they are by and large now excluded from the front bench, increasingly alienated by the direction of policy travel and effectively powerless in the context of Corbyn’s strong grassroots mandate and support.

Moving forward, the defenestrated progressives on the backbenches of the Labour Party and in the Liberal Democrat rump now face remarkably similar and equally fundamental existential challenges.

To the individuals concerned, their fall from grace has come as a real shock and there seems to be a real struggle in both parties to identify a clear route back to power.

Asides from division – between two parties, due to minor policy differences, as a result of personal rivalries, and due to the political necessity of party loyalty in our electoral system that is preventing otherwise natural breakaway or mergers, the key reason behind this is one of substance.

Fundamentally, just as Blair embraced the market economic defined legacy of Thatcher, Cameron has arguably embraced the loosely defined social and public service reform agenda of New Labour, in effect stealing the progressive’s clothes and raison d’être.

Driven by a mixture of pragmatism, a genuine shift away from social conservatism, the real and lasting impact of coalition with a genuinely progressive party, and the existence of some powerful voices for radical reform, particularly to education and welfare, the Conservatives have to a large extent been able to offer the public evolutionary continuity rather than radical change from the Blair/Brown era.

This is further complicated by progressive recognition of the broad necessity of Conservative fiscal policy – now the key dividing line on the left. Progressives, both Labour and Liberal Democrat, have been inclined to accept the need for balanced budgets and therefore continued cuts to public expenditure (albeit with significant differences of opinion about where the cuts should fall, the role of government capital investment, and the need for some tax increases to spread the burden more fairly). For those on the resurgent left (Corbyn et al and the SNP) this simply equates to being “Tory lite”.

What was clearly lacking in the Labour leadership contest, and remains elusive, is a clear progressive alternative platform for government. And with limited scope for a coup within the Labour Party and with more than four years until the next General Election, developing one must become focal if they are to ever stand a chance of regaining the initiative and returning to power.

There is plenty of scope for new thinking. On multinational taxation, on infrastructure investment, on housing and on the environment the Tories are weak and open to challenge. There is also a clear need for a new public service reform agenda centred on the integration of services to meet the ever complex needs of individuals.

In the short term, the European referendum should provide a rousing and unifying cause for progressives to work for, allowing the building of relationships and establishment of new voices.

Ultimately whether British progressives unite in common cause SDP style, or continue to develop distinct social democratic and liberal paths in parallel, will largely be determined by whether Lib Dem electoral fortunes improve independently and how long Corbyn remains in power.

In the 1990s the Lib Dem and Labour electoral fortunes were linked, and in the future political landscape progressive interests may need to align more deeply to pave a new path back to power. But the key to this is new thinking and progressives must take the opportunity of their new found freedom to get on with it.

Changing the Narrative: Is Business Action on Climate Change Believable?

climate change narrative

‘Image courtesy of Michael on Flickr’

Blizzards in America. Heat waves ‘beyond the limit of human survival’ in the Middle East. Droughts across Australia, Africa, India. Floods bursting through city after city across the UK.

Such stories are part of the 20-year-long narrative surrounding global warming, backed up by scientific studies and the accelerating signs that our Earth’s temperature is probably going to kill us.

Attention-grabbing it may be, but reading headlines like these you’d be forgiven for thinking climate change is a Doomsday tale. After all, you come away knowing we’re basically just “rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic”. That humanity is on an inevitable, irreversible path towards destruction. The end.

It’s not a pleasant narrative. Not an inspiring narrative. Perhaps one with an element of smugness for the scientists who, in twenty years time and the planet is burning, can say, “We told you so.” But essentially a narrative of despair complete with finger-pointing over who is responsible: the fossil fuel industry, greedy corporates, thoughtless Westerners, over-ambitious BRICS. Even before the Paris Climate Summit last December, changing this narrative was a concern.

COP21 was a hugely positive turning point, committing 195 nations to decarbonisation and action on climate change. The best (and potentially last) chance to save the planet as we know it, the summit stood out because more than just the same figureheads attended. The private sector had a real, tangible presence too, seeming equally invested in creating a zero-carbon future.

Of course, putting words into action isn’t something for which the corporate sector is known. At least not when it comes to addressing climate change. As pointed out by Georg Kell, founder of the UN Global Compact and Vice-Chair of Arabesque Partners, the private sector has “often played a sophisticated game to demonstrate green credentials with marketing campaigns, whilst at the same time using its influence to stop or undermine climate policy action.”

This is why business is never the good guy in climate stories, news headlines, literature. Certainly not in our films or television shows. Highlighting failures, missed targets, lost jobs and huge expenses, the narrative around business and climate change has long been negative.

And on reflection, it doesn’t take much scrutiny to reveal the only thing holding the COP21 together is peer pressure.

At a Guardian Sustainable Business’ debate on the role of the business sector in addressing global warming, the promises made at COP21 were the nominal concern of the panel.

Pledges were made, brands swore themselves to the cause, sweeping promises ensured a positive spin to the Paris summit. But will any of them be kept? Will world leaders keep climate change on the agenda once cameras have stopped rolling and there are no more pretty speeches to be made?

Sitting in the audience, however, what was most evident was that the real problem wasn’t whether or not promises will be kept, nor even what’s worse – the companies that fail to keep their pledges or the ones not making them. The question most urgently on the agenda but noticeably unanswered was how we can tackle the narrative underpinning the two-decade long collective action failure.

Steve Howard, IKEA’s Chief Sustainability Officer, first raised narrative as a central issue for climate action. According to him, we ‘need to be strong on carbon pricing. We want enforced obligations. We want accountability. To drive actions. To drive solutions.”

After all, the question shouldn’t be is business action believable? We need to be answering on how to ensure action on climate change happens. We need to focus on solutions and those creating them.

What became apparent during the debate was that the lack of homogeny within the corporate sector represented a significant hurdle. The panel itself conveyed this.

Howard represented the most optimistic viewpoint. Emphasising the success of IKEA and the positivity surrounding COP21, he talked about Green Growth and how it can improve material well-being by creating a world of abundance. On the other hand, Kevin Anderson (Tyndall Centre for Climate Research) employed shock and awe rhetoric to present a ‘hard change’ narrative that concluded by accentuating how unlikely it was for the Marshall Islands to still exist in twenty years as temperatures would almost certainly rise by at least 4 degrees, not the 2 degrees promised in Paris.

Green MP Caroline Lucas raised the spectre of conspiracy, pointing out that the business lobbyists negotiating in parliament are far from supportive with many oil industry representatives having a hand in the legislation being drawn up to create the regulations deemed necessary if promises made at COP21 are to succeed. This, she pointed out, is problematic for the main reason that Big Oil is possibly the biggest enemy of climate action.

On the other hand, the two representatives of the financial sector – Nordea’s Sasja Breslik and Alliance Trust’s Katherine Garrett-Cox – seemed more concerned with the remaining faction of climate deniers who still lurk in boardrooms. This is understandable. According to a survey of 1,400 CEOs from around the world compiled by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and published at Davos, only 50% of CEOS perceive climate change and environmental damage as a threat to business growth. Instead “over-regulation was listed as the biggest threat (by 79% of CEOs), followed by geopolitical uncertainty (74%) and other key threats including cyber attacks (61%).”

Garrett-Cox explained, “If you ask what’s at the top of your risk register in a boardroom it’s not going to be climate change. But it probably should be. We’ve made progress … but too many CFOs think it’s still a novel conversation.”

Somewhat supporting the conspiracy theory upheld by Lucas, Garrett-Cox and Breslik also alluded back to the concerns of Georg Kell and the idea that climate action in the business sector is systemic lip service. It looks good to look green, but actually going green is still perceived as undesirable. Why? Because ‘mitigating climate change undermines the ability of the world’s people to achieve and sustain prosperity’.

However, whilst there remain entities determined to maintain the status quo, and the panel couldn’t come to a consensus on accountability for ensuring targets nor responsibility for presenting solutions, the one thing agreed on was things need to change. There’s no more space for doom and gloom. There’s no more time for emotional dialogue. It’s imperative we move to something more practical.

So to pull everything together and ignore the general confusion of the panel’s dialogue, several factors were seen as crucial to recreating the narrative so it says neither ‘everything is roses’ or ‘everything is futile’.

Firstly, there needs to be a mental change within the economic system. We need to update the way people are taught. The IPCC released their first emissions report in 1990, but education has barely changed and certainly not the basics on the challenges of global warming or how to face them. Instead, we need to teach the links between sustainability and profitability that Garrett-Cox pointed out. The market opportunities highlighted by Howard, not to mention the invaluable benefits a zero-carbon economy could produce through innovative, cost-effective energy solutions and renewable technologies.

Secondly, sustainability has to become a lifestyle choice. Rather than just being that scary thing we read about, that thing that requires sacrifice, that thing that hangs like an albatross around our necks, it needs to be shown as an opportunity for everyone. At the debate, it was pointed out that there are no real leaders in sustainability yet. But this, in itself, is a powerful position. As Armstrong described, it’s an opportunity. The lack of leadership means ‘we are all catalysts for change.’ We can all be leaders for the future.

Thirdly, creating jobs, boosting economic growth, improving lives, this is just part of the business case for a decarbonised society extending into our every day lives and this needs to be demonstrated through politics and the media in particular. It will also have to include rebuilding the West’s culture of shame and praise. Whilst incentive systems exist for a reason, ‘name and shame’ horror stories deter individuals and companies from even trying. We’re a naturally risk-averse species, after all. It’s why the Doomsday narrative doesn’t work.

And lastly, we have to ignore the lure of silver bullets. Regulation is not a silver bullet. Geoscience is not a silver bullet. At the end of the day, the only thing that is going to work is collective action.

Across the world, these alterations to the way we live and work are already beginning to be seen. COP21 highlighted them. The UN Global Compact, the rise of B Corporations, The B Team, Generation S and others all show movement within the corporate sector. Initiatives like the Forward Institute and Singularity U are emerging with the single focus of educating and empowering a future generation of leaders. The increased coverage of these initiatives in the media is also key. There are more dedicated climate change awareness sections in the established media as well as many new outlets such as Triple Pundit, Blue and Green Tomorrow, The New Economy, Collectively, and GOOD. All of this indicates a wider interest from the public and business leadership.

The narrative is changing. But now it’s time to completely cast out the doom and gloom and convey a realistic but aspirational alternative. Hard work it might be, but COP21 is not too little, too late. It’s just in time.

It has to be.