27 Oct 2010

Freddie Kruger = Danny Alexander

Caroline Lucas article from Compass, original here

This is a challenging time for progressives. We have a coalition not only introducing savage cuts, but seeming to enjoy wielding the axe.

And that enthusiasm - with George Osborne and Danny Alexander competing to give the best impression of Freddie Kruger - gives the lie to the idea that these cuts are necessary because of the current recession.

We can see that they are ideologically driven. Many Tories, and some Liberal Democrats, want a smaller state and will use the financial crisis as the excuse to achieve it - even at the risk of plunging us back into recession.

And even at the risk of making the much greater environmental crisis that we face even worse, by slashing spending on green technology, on incentives for renewable, on the potential to create hundreds of thousands of green jobs.

I don't often find myself quoting Tim Yeo, but his comments over the weekend about this were spot on, when he pointed out that despite the national debt, spending on defence went up by 125% between 1930 and 1939. In the run up to the 2WW, we were running an even bigger deficit than today, but would never have won the battle of Britain if spending on defence had been sacrificed.

The point he's making, of course, is that we won't win the battle against climate change if we slash spending on it now.

And we need to make the case that not only are these cuts socially divisive, and environmentally disastrous, they are also economically completely illiterate.

The Ed Balls Bloomberg speech is something around which many progressives can unify - the speech where Balls made the case that it's through getting people back to work that we stand the best chance of addressing the deficit, through keeping people paying their taxes, rather than seeing tax revenue drain out of the economy, followed by redundancy payments and benefits payments.

But there's almost no discussion about the kind of work we envisage them doing, no debate about the kind of growth we need to see.

Yesterday, I spoke at a TUC conference which was entitled, without irony, Alliances for Green Growth.

Something about the alliteration seems to trick people into thinking the two ideas are compatible - green growth - it's like trade ministers talking about "free and fair trade", with no apparent recognition that just because free and fair start with the same letter, they're not the same things. Most free trade certainly isn't fair.

And if there is a form of growth which is genuinely green, genuinely sustainable, I'm not sure we know what it looks like yet.

So I think the challenge for progressives when it comes to the environment is to accept that our current economic system is economically and morally unsustainable. In other words, it only works by cheating future generations out of their birthright and by exploiting the vulnerable here and abroad.

So when we talk of a green recovery, we're not talking about a traditional economic recovery boosted by selling some home insulation or building some windmills.

We're not talking about business as usual, with a few green trimmings.

It's not about finding new products to sell, and sticking a green label on them.

We're talking about a recovery based on green principles and insights; one that is rooted in social justice and which balances our needs, against those of the developing world, the natural world, and those of future generations.

There's a lot of talk about fairness at the moment. Not just by the coalition government, who have stretched it to mind-boggling new limits, but now by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and their new report.

Yet there's very little debate about intergenerational fairness.

I'd argue that one of the fundamental challenges for progressive politics in the opening years of the twenty first century is that we haven't not yet come to terms with the full meaning of equality.

We have not properly thought through what it means, or how we can make it a reality.

And the reason for this is the way we have gone about forging a progressive consensus for the last 2 centuries.

Progressive politics have depended on ever rising economic growth and prosperity in order to bring about a redistribution of power.

And as the economy has grown, so elites have been persuaded to give up a little bit of their wealth and power.

They have accepted a little more taxation and redistribution; they have allowed political power to be spread a little more thinly.

That's not surprising. It's easier to ask people to take a smaller percentage of an ever growing cake.

But it has two consequences.

First, it gives the illusion of greater equality, while allowing for greater concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few.

And so Britain can, after 13 years of a Labour government, be more unequal than before they came to power.

Second, the prosperity itself may be built on rotten foundations. Already, we in Britain consume three times more than the world can sustain on an equitable basis.

The growth that has paid for our welfare state is built on the exploitation of natural resources and on the exploitation of people here and around the world.

And so often with the best intentions, the pursuit of increased national economic growth and wealth as a means to promote equality carries with it the seeds of its own failure.

The heart of the problem is a failure of imagination.

We are all equal.

And equality does not stop at the borders of the UK. Nor does it stop with the present generation.

And those whose world we are destroying, whose precious resources we are burning up, whose species we are making extinct, whose seas we are poisoning, and whose beauty and tranquillity we are sacrificing - those who are yet to be born - we owe them just as much as those around us today.

In business terms, we are treating our capital as income.

We use up our resources and say we are better off.

In the real world, if a business does this, it will go bust. In the parallel world of economics, we are supposed to carry on like this forever.

We haven't considered that by any rational measure, we are becoming not richer, but poorer. That economic growth is becoming uneconomic.

We don't think of the consequences of our actions in years to come.

This is seen most clearly in the approach to climate change.

And here I get to the crux of what I want to say.

The challenge for progressive politicians is to grasp that an incremental approach to tackling climate change is doomed to fail.

That the next 8-10 years are going to be absolutely critical in terms of getting our emissions in the industrialised world to peak, and start to come down, and that if we don't act within that briefest of windows of opportunity, then the chances of avoiding the worst of the climate crisis get very much slimmer.

And that means fundamentally challenging our current growth model.

Yet the number of politicians or civil society organisations focused primarily on the implications of today's growth model remains tiny. Worse, millions of environmental campaigners seem to seriously believe that we can address climate change, slow the loss of threatened species and habitats, manage chronic water and resource shortages and put an end to over fishing and continuing soil erosion, whilst pursuing pretty much the same kind of economic growth that brought these natural systems to the edge of collapse in the first place.

In other words, the trade off appears to be to ignore the inevitable long-term consequences of business-as-usual growth in order to help to protect short term organisational effectiveness. It may make sense from a tactical point of view, but strategically it's unsustainable.

So how do we make this shift from incremental change to systemic reform?

How do we build that public and political momentum for change fast enough?

What chances are there for civil society organisations to coalesce around the challenge to make the case for a very different kind of economic model?

And what role for progressive politicians?

I look forward to the debate.

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