Sheffield red alert event

Image via Chris Saltmarsh

Climate change is happening now. It requires urgent action. Increasingly, it is apparent that only socialists have the ideas and the organisation to lead us out of this crisis. 2019 will be the year the new left takes charge of climate action.

Red Alert

The inevitability of this has never been more evident to me than at Red Alert – a grassroots conference in Sheffield exploring socialist responses to climate breakdown – on Saturday 2 March. Red Alert was organised by Labour activists through the Sheffield Hallam Constituency. Attendees were a mix of older and young and activists from Labour community groups and the traditional climate movement. The event sold out weeks ago and on arrival the atmosphere was bubbly and upbeat. The hope of the insurgent Green New Deal paired with major climate shocks of the last year have produced the perfect cocktail for a resurgent left-climate movement.

The event’s location should not be overlooked. London continues to dominate British politics and has absorbed disproportionate energy, resource and interest of progressive movements. Left-climate organising must now intentionally come as much from outside London as within it. Sheffield, like other Northern towns and cities, experiences the challenges of both climate breakdown and inequality uniquely.

Clive Lewis, Labour’s Shadow Minister for the Treasury, told the event of the need for bottom-up policy proposals to shape Labour’s climate platform. With so much policy-making centred in the South East of England, equitably rebalancing the economy between and within regions must now be priority for a Green New Deal in the UK. With its organising led from cities like Sheffield, developing radical proposals that work for towns, cities and regions beyond London will be central to the plan – no longer an afterthought for the activists, researchers and politicos gravitating around Westminster.

Building hegemony

Lewis also underlined the need to build hegemony around our solutions. Horrifying a truth as it may be to digest, once elected a Labour government won’t necessarily stay in power for three or four terms. This time in government would be ideal to fully deliver a transformative Green New Deal, but it needn’t be necessary. Building hegemony for transformative climate action would mean making those ideas common sense across the political spectrum. This is possible by building grassroots power in communities nationwide; the institutions necessary to take the Green New Deal forward beyond a Labour government; and the infrastructure to lock our political economy into irreversible transformations.

After 1945 Attlee’s Labour government built the NHS and made hegemonic the imperative for free universal healthcare in the British political discourse alongside the infrastructure of the welfare state. The reindustrialisation of the North with zero-carbon industry alongside a regional jobs guarantee would quickly build popular consent for the Green New Deal while constructing infrastructure that becomes politically and financially costly to reverse. Investing heavily in zero-carbon, high-speed integrated public transit to efficiently connect every town and city (not just London) would instill a powerful sense of communal luxury. This is something an austere Tory government could never cut in the way it might reverse redistributive tax or diversion of state subsidies.

Taking on the fossil fuel industry

Discussions at the event also took fire at the fossil fuel industry. Successfully building a left-climate hegemony also requires dismantling the power and influence of fossil capital across our political economy. Companies like BP, Shell and BHP disregard human rights globally while threatening universities considering divestment in the UK. This behaviour shows their amoral commitment to defending their political and economic power even as the climate crisis they are wholly responsible for driving worsens and their popularity hits an all-time low.

Through divestment, the climate movement has forced us all to acknowledge the reality that the fossil fuel industry will continue to block meaningful climate action with all it has. The left must now take on the task of marginalising the industry entirely by organising to remove energy production and distribution from the hands of private companies and hand it over to the public to own and democratically control.

Red Alert primed local activists to begin considering how to confront the fossil fuel industry from the city. Participants mapped out who (institutions, groups and individuals) in the city had power over demands for a Green New Deal including which were supportive or hostile. Bringing together the networks of activists spanning the city but politically united, the new left has the potential to catapult climate organising into becoming a mass movement capable of facing up to climate and economic crises at the same time.

Sheffield is one of many beautiful Northern cities with rich history currently deprived of meaningful and plentiful employment and surrounded by potential fracking sites. It is fitting that an imminent wave of activity agitating for a Green New Deal should start there. Climate justice isn’t just about grandiose goals to fully decarbonise the whole economy. It means sustainably revitalising every single town and city that have never properly recovered from deindustrialisation. Socialists in Sheffield are ready to lead the fight for our futures.

Chris Saltmarsh

About Chris Saltmarsh

Chris Saltmarsh is a socialist and climate justice organiser based in Oxford. He is Co-Director: Climate Change Campaigns at student activist network People & Planet, where he manages the fossil fuel divestment and fossil free finance campaigns. He is also a member of direct-action network Reclaim the Power and of the Labour Party. He mostly writes about climate politics, social movements and the labour movement.