The Emperor still has no clothes…

This is a write up of my notes for the Teach the Future Teach In on 27th August. It misses out some ad libs and includes other notes that were skipped over, so doesn’t act as a precise script for the recording due out shortly.

Organising on climate in the trade union movement means we need to grasp that its vital for working class organisations not just to react to the crisis but to lead on resolving it.

Last year’s OXFAM report noted that the rapidly increasing carbon footprints of the top 10% of the global population will take us above 1.5C on their own, regardless of what the rest of us do.

The poorest 50% have a negligible carbon footprint. What might be called the “upper middle” 40% – which includes most of us here, working class people in the Global North and better off people in the Global South – have a carbon footprint that is shrinking.

The struggle for a sustainable climate is therefore a class struggle against the unsustainable overconsumption of the wealthy.

If you look at the organising core of climate denialism it combines the corporate interests of fossil fuel companies and an activist cadre of extremely wealthy men, like Lord Lawson.

Global Crisis

The problem is that attempts to deal with climate breakdown have to go through the existing machinery of power, which maintain current economic relations.

This is very marked in the United States, which has been the world’s leading economic, political and military power since at least 1945. They are failing to lead.

This is not just because they are spending twenty times as much on their military as they are on climate investment, but because their whole model of society – all those sprawling gas hungry suburbs, short haul flights, lack of high speed rail or decent metro systems in most cities, the celebration of individualised alienated mass consumption to fill the holes in their souls – generates the third biggest per capita carbon footprint in the world. Only Saudi Arabia and Australia are worse. “The American Way of Life” is not a viable model of the future anymore – even for the US itself.

They are now also exporting record quantities of fracked LNG and Oil. The power of fossil fuel interests buying up votes in Congress means there is a see saw between outright Trumpish denialism and limited half measures like the Reduce Inflation Act – which combines both vital investment in green energy and lets further fossil fuel projects off the leash. The passage of this Act means that John Kerry will no longer be walking naked into the conference chamber at COP. He’ll be trying to maintain his dignity in his underpants.

There is a strongly held view in the Global South that climate breakdown is a problem for the Global North to fix, on the basis that the world’s richest countries – the USA, Canada, EU, UK, Japan, Australia etc – are responsible for 90% of historic carbon emissions. “You broke it. You fix it”. That is sometimes put vehemently in India and is a strongly held view in parts of China too.

But in China that is shifting.

A friend of mine who works for a Chinese University tells me that for the last few years there have been two to three conferences a week on aspects of climate change up and down the country. Xi Jinping talks a lot about the need to build an “Ecological Society”. They are currently investing one and a half times as much in green transition as they are in their military. It is currently expected that their 2030 target for renewables will be met by 2026 and coal – on which they are still heavily dependent – is being redefined as a support for a grid based on renewables not the other way round. The speed with which this can be achieved is vital for all of us (both in its direct effects but also in providing a developmental model for other Global South countries).

More negatively, the failure of the Global North countries to transfer the $100 billion needed as a bottom line for the Global South to cope with climate impacts and develop without recourse to fossil fuels has led to the African Union planning to demand at the COP that Africa’s reserves of oils and gas are developed to alleviate poverty. With Global North countries developing their own reserves, they don’t have a leg to stand on if they want to oppose this.

Britain

We are about to move from Boris Johnson’s inverted pyramids of patriotic piffle – pie in the sky “world leading” targets with no plans to meet them just to strike a pose – to Liz Truss – who will be worse.

While Truss formally supports the Net Zero 2050 target for the UK, she says she finds the sight of solar farms in the countryside “depressing” and her response to the energy price crunch is to use it to boost oil and gas production and exploration in the North Sea, while rejecting a windfall tax on energy producers, lift the ban on fracking while opposing onshore wind – none of which will reduce bills.

She is backed by Lord Frost – known to his friends as “Frosty the No Man” – who opined in the week of our 40C heatwave, during which the Fire Brigade had more call outs than at any time since the second World War, that he saw “no evidence” of a climate emergency in the UK and instead of the “medieval technology” of wind power, favours measures to “master our environment”, like fracking and nuclear. She is also backed by Steve Baker and the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (a really bad name for a band) and is anticipated to put go slowers like Jacob Rees Mogg in the cabinet.*

The paradox here is that you could have such a dynamic Tory narrative in favour of Onshore Wind. They could say – “let’s cut the red tape and let the market work its magic!” Or, in the name of “energy security” they could paint them red, white and blue and call them “Freedom Farms”, stand in front of them for a poster with the slogan “Its Britain’s Wind!” Why don’t they do that? Perhaps because fossil fuels are more profitable than renewables and they want to maintain market share regardless of the cost (in all respects).

The good news here is that they are already so unpopular that just about everything they do will be discredited just because its them doing it. Liz Truss – a hard person to warm to – will not get a honeymoon period.

Schools

Who said this?

“The challenge of climate change is formidable. For children and young people to meet it with determination and not with despair we must offer them not just truth, but also hope. Learners need to know the truth about climate change…they must also be given the hope that they can be agents of change.”

Nadhim Zahawi said that at the launch of the DFE Net Zero Strategy in April. Of course, his pitch for Conservative leader a couple of months later was to cut 20% from all government budgets, so…

Four questions for us to think about.

  1. In the context of increased economic pressure on schools, with energy costs up 93% on last year, leading to pressure for cuts down to bare bones provision (4 day weeks, cutting all staff not teaching core subjects have both been floated) will the positive initiatives from the Net Zero Strategy – like the National Nature Park, the requirement for all schools to appoint sustainability leads in 2023 – be dropped as “green crap” and the DFE Sustainability Unit with them?
  2. In the context of a wholesale retreat from Net Zero targets by the Conservatives at national level, what milage is left in lobbying Conservative MPs (though we should never cease pointing out to them that dropping the 2050 targets would lose them 1.3 million votes) compared with getting opposition parties likely to form the next government on a sound policy? The point here is that a government visibly on the skids is leaching power even while still in office and the statement “We will undo this” by Shadow Ministers cuts the ground out from new initiatives and sets the agenda even before the old government falls.
  3. In the context of denialists/go slowers “crisis, what crisis” types dominating the cabinet, how far is the current DFE “impartiality guidance” – which says that the science is set and denialism invalid, but the debate on what we do about it has to be done in a “non Partisan” way, that blocks support for particular campaigns or initiatives but allows debate to be had, so long as no one view is promoted, allows personal views to be stated, as long as they are identified as such and its made clear other views are available – be replaced with straight forward “war on woke” from the top? **
  4. What scope is there for a campaign for school insulation on the TUC Report, to directly cut energy costs and act as community hubs?

Lastly, watch out for the NEU Guide to Decarbonising the Curriculum – due out in November.

Thank you for having me.

* And so she has. At Business and Energy for goodness sake.

** The appointment of Jonathan Gullis, who refers to the NEU as the “No Education Union” and does not seem an open minded sort of chap, does not bode well.

Mourning in Late Britain

Living in the UK is a bit like living in a museum, in which popular culture is encouraged to steep in nostalgia for lost status. This can be quite bitter, rather like an over stewed pot of tea.

An aspect of early industrialisation and former global dominance here is the survival by inertia of archaic forms of governance mostly abandoned or overthrown elsewhere. Our Head of State has just changed, not by election and not on any political timetable, but because of biology. The former Queen was 96 and as healthy as anyone could be expected to be at that age; but died last week just two days after seeing Boris Johnson off, and Liz Truss in, as Prime Minister.

This is probably entirely coincidental. But we now have a new Head of State and new Prime Minister in the same week, in a bizarre two for one offer. From Elizabeth II and Boris Johnson to Charles III and Liz Truss. “Oh, brave new world that hath such people in it!”

As a result, we are now in a strange pause of “national mourning” in which almost everything is on hold. While they haven’t gone so far as to stop all the clocks, strikes by Rail and Postal workers have been suspended, the TUC postponed, no Party meetings or campaigning is taking place, Parliament has shut down, the media is wall to wall black suits mobilising a tsunami of deference for the old monarch and the new: even the football is cancelled for a week of Sundays, the last two Proms have been scrapped “out of respect” and the music on the Radio has a definite decaffeinated quality. Charles III declaring that this mourning period will extend to 7 days beyond the funeral is probably his first mistake. People will be grumbling.

More to the point, while everyone catches a breath, the underlying crises of what might be called “Late Britain” are building beyond a point that they can all be peacefully contained. In his first address to the nation, Charles III intoned gravely that “our values have remained, and must remain, constant.”

Fat chance of that.

The 2008 crash shattered the notion that things might go on relatively well or relatively badly, but it was all, ultimately, manageable. This went out the door with the boxes carried by the sacked employees of Lehman Brothers. Politics in the UK became more intense, and the unthinkable thought. Much of it fantasy.

This was writ large with Brexit – the notion that with one mighty bound, the UK could free itself from the shackles of EU restrictions holding back its natural market genius and long lost ubermench status, and go sailing off into the wider world, striking “easy” trade deals on favourable terms, especially with countries in the Global South; an approach openly referred to as “Empire 2” in some parts of Whitehall. Wishful thinking as policy.

This has not worked. Levels of private investment and private sector R&D – never high in the UK – have sunk to historic lows. So has growth. Poverty, particularly child poverty, has increased. Wage levels have stagnated or sunk. People in work are having to use food banks in ever increasing numbers. Life expectancy in poorer areas is dropping. People are having fewer children. The future no longer looks like a promise, more like a threat. And that’s leaving aside climate breakdown – which is exactly what they are now trying to do.

Since Brexit, the Tories are now on their third Prime Minister. Each replacement has been a move further right, with wider still and wider Brexit as goal and talisman. In the leadership election campaign over the summer, both candidates were agreed on the aims of deepening Brexit – decoupling the UK from the EU’s environmental and labour standards so the UK becomes more like the USA – but disagreed on the pace of it.

Liz Truss represents a minority of her Parliamentary Party – most of whom supported her rival, Rishi Sunak. Truss’s cabinet rests solely on her own faction – most of whom have essence of Ayn Rand on a drip feed into what passes for their souls – and promises war on all fronts. Stalling on climate action. War drive against Russia and China. Confrontation with the EU – and USA – over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Confrontation with the SNP. Redistribution of wealth up to those who don’t need it from those who do. Attacks on the right to strike and organise. Privatisation of the Health Service. Tearing up all remaining alignment with EU standards on labour and environment standards. War on woke (ie equalities). It’s hard to imagine that this will go well.

Her speech in Downing Street spelled out three priorities and challenges.

She did not mention climate breakdown, which makes everything else she said a form of displacement activity while we are waiting to die. Her list of infrastructure to invest in did not mention insulation but had roads in first place. Truss is backed by the Net Zero Scrutiny Group and Lord Frost, who opined during the week local temperatures exceeded 40C that he saw “no evidence” of a climate crisis, has appointed Jacob “2050 is a long way away” Rees Mogg to energy, plans to open up 130 new gas and oil fields in the North Sea and remove the ban on fracking, opposes onshore wind and rural solar farms. This is proclaimed as a way of increasing domestic energy supply in the face of rising prices, with the implication that this will ease the pressure on bills. It won’t. The quickest sources of low cost additional energy is onshore wind and solar, which she opposes. New North Sea gas and oil fields take 28 years to come into production on average. So, approval now will see them on stream in 2050 which, as Rees Mogg might remark “is a long way away”. It is also the point at which we need to have closed down fossil fuel production almost entirely if we want a planet we can live on. This is a kind of madness and a sign that these people are incapable of rising to the actual challenge of our time and, if left in power, will instead lead us to disaster.

Of the three, her first aim was to “get Britain working again”. This is curious, because employment levels are high, albeit often poorly paid, part time, insecure. Her “bold plan” is to make tax cuts and “reform”. Reform means greater insecurity for workers, greater “flexibility” for employers. Tax cuts benefit people with higher incomes most; which Truss formulates as a reward for “hard work”. In her book, people on low incomes don’t work hard and therefore deserve everything they get. Her presumption is that increased disposable incomes for the better off will lead to greater demand and therefore spark “business led” investment. But increased demand without investment, which is what we’ll get, will just fuel inflation, as it did in the US and beyond, with Joe Biden’s stimulus package. At best, this will be a clumsily inequitable way to try to partially counteract the recessionary impact of higher prices for necessities and increased interest rates leading to reduced demand across the board but seems guaranteed to entrench inflation into stagnation. It serves a political purpose of trying to keep the better off on board with the Conservatives, pulling the ladder up beneath them, consolidating a core vote and preventing total political meltdown. It may not be enough, even for that.

Her second is to “deal with the energy crisis”. The rise in fossil fuel prices started long before the Ukraine war and is now structured into the global economy, but the upward twist the war gave it could be resolved by a push for peace negotiations. As the Financial Times put it, “This coming winter will bring a reckoning. Western governments must either invite economic misery on a scale that would test the fabric of democratic politics in any country, or face the fact that energy supply constrains the means by which Ukraine can be defended.” As it is, Truss sabre rattles in faraway countries of which she knows little, and sometimes can’t pronounce, is pressing for a sharp increase in military spending to 3% of GDP, will try to ride out the economic misery, and will try to tear “the fabric of democratic politics” to do so.

She is standing on thin ice. But she will jump up and down on it all the same.

With UK based fossil fuel companies scheduled to make £170 billion in excess profits in the next two years, she has chosen not to impose a windfall tax on any of it. Shell, her former employer, paid £0 in UK tax in 2021, and she obviously thinks this is the way to go. Instead, the state will borrow up to £150 billion this year alone to subsidise energy costs at £2500 per household per year for the next two years (until the next General Election). Though the details of exactly how this scheme will work are still unclear, this heads off an immediate meltdown, as prices were projected to go up to over £5,000 by January, putting more than half of the population into fuel poverty. But this is still a rise of £600 on current levels, which are already pushing a lot of people into arrears (and this is during the Summer in which most people have their heating off and are just using their boilers to heat water, so this will still be a grim winter on this front and vulnerable elderly people are expected to die).

This is just one aspect of a general inflationary crisis, with prices rising at 13% a year (and projected to rise to 18% next year) while wages are falling well behind. Employers who are offering any rises at all are trying to lock workers into two or three year deals at below the current inflation rate while also proposing “modernisation” (a euphemism to cover cuts in holiday entitlement, pensions, safety measures, extra payments for unsocial hours etc). This is sparking a revival of trade union struggle, support and membership. Rail workers and Post Office workers and Barristers (!) are already engaged in a prolonged series of strikes and these, despite frantic efforts in the media to demonise and divide and rule, are very popular with the public, because everyone is under the cosh in the same way. Union leaders like RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch have become media stars and gained a lot of resonance putting straightforward common sense arguments that workers shouldn’t be expected to carry the can for the crisis when private companies are making massive profits, opening up a space in the mainstream for broadly socialist ideas for the first time since the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn in 2019.

Smaller scale and hard fought local or sectional disputes have often won substantial gains for the striking workers, so in the national disputes there has been a clear line from the government to the companies involved not to make any concessions at all, for fear that these struggles will become contagious. Truss aims to pass legislation to make strike action almost impossible to carry out legally, by imposing high ballot thresholds, while imposing “minimum service levels” if strikes do take place. If passed, in conditions of continued economic pressure, this will lead to what used to be called “wildcat” actions and, at the very least “quiet working” as the norm as resentful people struggle with an unfair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. The coordination of a prolonged series of one day stoppages in the existing disputes would provide a political focus both for the demands of the strikes and opposition to these measures that will spread far beyond them.

Her third priority is to “put our health service on a firm footing”. In her book, that means privatisation. US style labour and environment standards also imply US style health care. Needless to say, this is not popular, even among conservative supporters. When Boris Johnson put his big lie, that leaving the EU would save the UK £350 million a week” on the side of his campaign bus in 2016, the strap line was “let’s spend it on our NHS”. The “our” in that slogan is heartfelt across the country. Anyone who tries to break it up for private insurers to leach off will be well and truly loathed.

Truss could be an easy magnet for that. Trying very hard to be a two dimensional cardboard replica of Margaret Thatcher, she has the brass neck that comes as standard with Tory MPs, but also seems to have had a charisma and empathy bypass operation. It used to be said of Johnson that he was Teflon. Nothing stuck to him. It took a while, but it did in the end. That has never been said of Truss. Excruciating mash ups of her most embarrassing moments are doing the rounds on social media. Just google “Truss cheese speech” for an example. With Johnson’s calculated buffoonery it was possible to believe that, as the old Habsburg joke had it, “the condition of the realm might be terminal, but it’s not serious”. Truss doesn’t do humour, except unintentionally. And she has a gift for dropping unnecessarily antagonistic remarks which exacerbate crises that need emollience, like her comment that SNP leader and Scottish First Minister is an “attention seeker” who should be “ignored” or that workers in the UK are “the worst idlers in the world” who should “graft” more: which won’t exactly endear her to them.

As the polls turn south, the pound sinks slowly in the West, possibly dropping below parity with the dollar for the first time ever, and the nemesis of the 2024 General Election approaches for Tory MPs, expect trouble in Parliament as they fight like ferrets in a sack to keep their jobs. It has been reported that 12 of them have already written letters of no confidence, all ready to go. Some honeymoon period.

Nevertheless, I suspect that the calculation is that whatever they do, the Conservatives will probably be out at the next election in 2024, so they might as well go for broke in the meantime; in full confidence that an incoming Labour government led by Keir Starmer will reverse none of it. The task in the labour movement is to generate such a mobilisation against Truss’s measures that the momentum has to be carried over into government.

Why it will be Truss

The Conservative Party is full of racists and Rishi Sunak is not white.

Watching the Sky hustings yesterday, Sunak came across as much cleverer than Truss. Very quick on his feet. Slightly puppyish public schoolboy enthusiasm. Close your eyes and, y’know, it could be Tony Blair. Look at him and he even has some of Blair’s mannerisms – the parallel chopping hands, the way of remembering the names of questioners in the audience to engage “personally” with them, the fake self deprecation. But being clever could be a problem. “Too clever by half” to lead a Party full of people “tired of experts”. The Conservative Party is full of people who employ people like Sunak to do their accounts. They don’t want to be bossed by smartarse backroom nerds, however slick.

More substantially, “its the economy stupid”.

Truss, 2D cardboard figure though she is, rapidly reduced to speaking clock responses when caught out, represents a continuity of the “triumph of the will” style delusions that fuelled Brexit.

The sense that she is both a Margaret Thatcher tribute act and “continuity Boris” – having been loyal to the shameless charlatan ’til the end – nevertheless indicates that a cosplay version of the real thing is the best they can do now. Thatcher was PM at a time before the reunification of Germany, when the UK cut a more powerful global figure than it can possibly do now. Johnson could genuinely embody “cakeism” because of who he is – Eton, Oxford, Bullingdon, the Spectator. That shameless sense of entitlement that he could always eat his cake because someone else would keep supplying him with more – and his projection that the country could reassert its imperial habits of doing the same – were quite genuine in his case. Bone of his bone. Blood of his blood. For Truss, middle class girl from Leeds, taught, like all of us are in the state education system that the way to get on is to impress others, can’t convince in the same way. At Eton, they are taught that, whatever their limitations, they are the people that others have to impress. Truss can, at the most, impersonate that. And she tries very hard. And it shows.

Nevertheless, on the economics, she is trying to make out that the only reason we are heading for a recession is because people are saying we are (“talking us into a recession”)- thereby neatly inverting reality. Her formula for the immediate crisis is to

  • hold down wages and “stop unions holding working people to ransom”,
  • a Kamikazi Brexit, slashing and burning all residual EU regulations on labour and environment standards within 18 months and possible trade war with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol,
  • trying to keep the economy from tanking with immediate tax cuts, which by and large benefit those who are least badly hit.

This may be based on a calculation that whatever they do, they are likely to lose the next election, so they might as well try to “move fast and smash things”, as they say in management, safe in the knowledge that an incoming Labour led government under Starmer would be too wed to ruling class interests to overturn very much of it.

Her rapidly withdrawn proposal to cut public sector pay to match local cost of living figures – claiming that it was “misunderstood” because it was understood only too clearly that, if you put out a press release claiming “savings” of £8.8 billion based on figures calculated on “savings” from the salaries of nurses, teachers, and police officers, it is not a “misunderstanding” to conclude that it is precisely those people whose wages would be cut – indicates how badly thought out so much of this is.

The fundamental flaw in her idea is that seeking to boom an economy by boosting consumption without investment was exactly what started the global inflationary surge when Joe Biden did exactly that with his stimulus package last year. Underlying all this is the low level of private sector investment, which none of Truss’s programme will boost. Inflation will bite hard into living standards.

Sunak, by contrast, is a “sound money” man. He seems to think it doesn’t matter if human civilisation perishes in rising floods and fires, so long as the books are balanced when it does. The Governor of the Bank of England thinks likewise, hence the rise in interest rates this week. This signals an impending series of clashes between Downing and Threadneedle Streets as the crisis intensifies.

This goes to the heart of the Conservative conflict and the impossible dilemma they face; given that they exist to politically block any solution that might actually work, if that was based on state investment or greater equality. Raise interest rates, keep money tight, and zombie companies, those that are only able to keep ticking over if the interest rates on their debt stays near to zero, go bust. Everyone employed by them loses their jobs, and have to claim benefits. Everyone with a mortgage gets squeezed and cuts back (and landlords with mortgages put rents up). Measures taken to curb inflation leads to recession. Measures taken to avoid recession fuels inflation. Snookered.

On other matters, they are agreed.

Both see the solution to the inflationary spike in gas prices fueled by the Ukraine war – which hits the UK very hard because we have such a high dependence on gas for cooking and home heating in the draughtiest houses in Europe – as a Ukrainian victory. Its increasingly evident that this is a fantasy. The options are a negotiated compromise peace; or a long term frozen conflict (which NATO will go for so as not to lose face). The only way to get an immediate cut in gas, and therefore energy prices, is to push for peace, not keep fuelling the war. Jeremy Corbyn was right to call for the UK to stop supplying arms this week.

Both see the solution to the increased costs of energy from fossil fuels is to double down on fossil fuels. Sunak’s responses to “Net Zero Questions”

New coal mines? “Yes” to avoid coal imports, even though he knows that the projected coal mine in Cumbria would export 80% of its production.

Fracking? “Yes” – where locally supported.

Onshore wind? “No”. Not caveats about local support. In the immortal words of Hermione Granger. “What. An. Idiot”.

And Truss wants to cut the “green levies” on energy bills, even though this is marginal and their effect over the years, in paying for what little insulation has been done, is to reduce bills. She has also made noises about letting the 2050 Net Zero target slip; thinking, like Johnson, that we can get away with a “Climate Pass”. As if the laws of physics will bend because she wants them to.

Both are fully paid up Cold War Warriors against China and both will ramp up military spending, not noticing that Nancy Pelosi’s brinkmanship this week was not at all popular in Taiwan; where, by and large, people are quite content to fudge along with the current ambiguity in relation to the People’s Republic rather than be used as a causus belli by the US (which is a long way away from where the fighting would take place – as it is from Ukraine).

Both favour using racism – deportations to Rwanda just a start, a new definition of Refugee based on the Australian model that dumps desperate people on far off Pacific Island camps, imprisoning and criminalising people for being desperate (and actually wanting to come here and make a contribution) restricting of access to “legal routes” that don’t actually exist. None of these restrictions apply to people who can buy their way in of course.

Truss adds a petty twist all of her own that goes down really well with her audience, in seeking to keep the UK together by goading Scots nationalists. This goes down a ton at 19th holes in Hampshire. Not so much in Glasgow.

With 16 million people already cutting back on food and essentials, even before energy bills go through the roof in October just as the weather gets colder, with the war in Ukraine increasingly going badly for NATO and voices for peace getting louder, with unions taking up the fight to defend their members and even non union workers in places like the Amazon warehouse in Tilbury expressing collective self respect by holding a sit in against wage cuts, with arguments now being heard that we need to redistribute wealth away from profits back to the people whose work made those profits, and the likelihood that our next Prime Minister will be someone who wants to go for confrontational broke on all fronts; we are in for a Winter in which there will be desperate struggles and serious political shifts.

Facing the realities of climate breakdown, the slippage of US global hegemony (with everything that flows from that), the global economic impasse of neo-liberalism – given a local twist of Brexit deepening the stagnation and slow disintegration of the UK, there is almost an imperative for the Conservatives to double down. As the old gods fail, the true believers worship all the harder and the old songs take on a willed manic quality that will be increasingly shrill. We will get political leaders to match. Far from looking after the apple stall, they will kick it over to see which way the apples roll. “Steady as she goes” does not fit times in which time is not on their side.

That’s why it will be Truss.