Last week, Britain’s political opposition actually became an opposition, with the election of a leader that is dramatically different (in policy, style and values) to the ruling party and its intellectual allies: Jeremy Corbyn. At a time when the politics of this country has shifted so far to the right that neoliberal austerity is presented as the middle ground and everything else is relegated to the margins, his election as Labour leader (with 60% of the vote no less) is a very big deal. Because he does not fit the cookie cutter mould of the modern establishment. A left-wing-liberal, he champions greater equality, deeper democracy and more public ownership of assets. He opposes austerity, Trident, fracking and new nuclear.
As you can probably tell, I’m widely supportive of his agenda and excited by his election. It’s a big step change from the pathetic ”austerity-lite” of Miliband’s Labour that completely failed to hold the government to account or persuade the electorate of their merit. The best thing about it for me, is that this injects some much needed plurality and diversity of opinion into the mainstream political debate. The democratic election in which Corbyn won just under 60% of the vote and the candidate that came second got 20%, showed that a large section of the population want a fairer alternative to the economic model we have right now. Championing many of the issues only given a platform by the Greens until now, his decisive election definitely shows the public would like an alternative option. This brings back some of the hope that the 2015 general election crushed inside me.
However, my support for Corbyn is not unconditional.
When I heard, from the Green Party, that Corbyn supported the re-opening of coal mines, I was incredibly shocked and horrified. Coal is the dirtiest of fuels, and any dalliance with it is completely opposed to meaningful climate action. It’s moving backwards not forwards and is just an utterly terrible idea. I heard he wanted to do it to bring jobs back to regions that lost their industrial jobs under Thatcher. Fair enough, I thought: those areas do need new jobs, likely of the industrial kind. But certainly NOT with coal. There is no excuse whatsoever for doing anything with coal other than speedily phasing it out.
So when I read Corbyn’s environmental policy, I was even more surprised. Not only is there no mention of opening coal mines, there are many statements that would seem to unilaterally rule out such a policy. For example the document states that he stands for ”an end to the era of fossil fuels”, that we need to “leave 80% of global fossil fuel reserves in the ground” and that his “over-arching commitment will be for Britain
to take the lead in developing the clean energy economy of the future”. He also states within these pages that renewable energy creates more jobs that the fossil fuels sectors, and that using only a quarter of our renewable energy capacity would turn us into a net exporter of energy. He states time and time again that he would ramp up support for solar and wind energy, impose stricter sustainability regulations of new build, fund a national home insulation programme and support community-ownership of energy companies.
His environmental policy reads very similar to that of the Green Party, and anyone reading it would be forgiven for assuming he wouldn’t touch coal with a bargepole. So what is going on? Is he lying about how green he is? Or was his support for coal a media hallucination, based on an out-of-context comment and twisted into something else before being repeated by other publications? Does he honestly think that ”clean coal” is not an oxymoron? Is he actually just confused?
I don’t know. The Telegraph, The Mirror and Wales Online all report that he’s said he would like to reopen deep coal mines in South Wales. All of these could well be mistaken. However, Greenpeace’s Energy Desk also reports that he is at least open to the idea, and I do see them as more reliable on this. Not least because they interviewed him themselves, rather than parroting information from another source. He told them:
“It’s quite possible that in future years coal prices will start to go up again around the world and maybe they’ll be a case for what is actually very high quality coal, particularly in South Wales, being mined again.”
It’s important to note that he tacks the need for carbon capture and storage technology onto this. It seems to be a bit of a joke in environmental circles. The technology is not ready for commercial use at all, and it’s development has stalled. I guess he thinks it’s a valid way to reconcile coal-mining with his environmental agenda, for some reason. I do think that his commitment to genuinely clean energy and democratic decision-making seems much stronger than his fairly vague (but still worrying) ‘yeah maybe one day we could open coal mines with as-yet infeasible green tech making it okay’. But I still can’t give him my full support until he clears up this confusion and rejects coal for the toxic throwback it is.
He also falls short of the post-growth vision I would ideally like to see. Being questioned on the viability of continuous economic growth, he spouted the usual green-growth rubbish about decoupling pollution and growth – which unfortunately isn’t possible. So the Greens remain the only voice for post-growth ideas within British politics. But to be fair, I can’t really hold this against him. My country is in such a mess right now and the political climate is such that even opposing austerity is enough to make you a radical challenge to the establishment. When just saying that the poor shouldn’t have to pay for the greedy mistakes of the bankers and that we should make corporations pay their taxes is enough to get you branded as a ”loony leftie” by the mainstream media then it would be practically impossible for Corbyn to call for an end to economic growth. And being pragmatic, if (and it’s a big if) he manages to get into government in 2020, his reforms would actually bring us a good way along to path to a post-growth future. Things like raising the minimum wage, investing in public transport and clean energy, encouraging community ownership-models, raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy and insulating homes are all big steps in the right direction that put us in a better position to transition to a post-growth economy down the line.
So my only other concern is simply how hard it will be for Corbyn to survive in the hostile political climate he finds himself in. The mainstream media in the UK is mostly right-wing, and the bile they’ve already started to churn out about him is nothing compared with the media shitstorm that he will face as the next general election draws nearer. Even left-leaning papers like the Guardian have been giving the impression that his ideas are ”extreme” – as if the government’s ideas are not. He will need a large and skilled media team as well as an impressive strength of character to withstand this opposition. His calls for greater equality are clearly a big threat to the corporate elite – who have control of most of the mainsteam media, the financial system and the government – and they won’t take it lying down.
I hope he’s up to the challenge.