I’m sure we all remember where we were on the morning of Friday 24 June. I was in bed, having been one of the few people in Britain to actually sleep through referendum night. I remember leaning over to pick up my phone and read the news that I had been dreading for days, that I hoped would never be possible. We had voted to leave the European Union.
Since then, politics appears to have exploded. The media has has filled the vacuum of uncertainty with speculation about the future impact of everyone’s favourite/most hated office topic on our jobs, our economy, our pensions, our holidays to Spain, etc, with the predictions seem to change from one minute to the next. All alongside a large side order of enough political drama for about 10 series of The Thick of It.
And amidst all this discussion, all this speculation, environmental issues are once again side-lined.
For the environment we all, whether we like it or not, have to live in, leaving the EU is, potentially, catastrophic. The Paris Agreement now has some serious questions to be addressed and under-recognised EU legislation that currently protects air quality, keeps beaches clean and has pushed us away from the unenviable ‘dirty man of Europe’ title.
Yet despite these high stakes, green issues are still side issues. This is true in the Labour Party as well as the media. Despite it’s strong environmental record, in the grassroots discussions of members, green issues often appear on the periphery, rather than a central plank in our beliefs and philosophy as a party. Let’s face it, most people don’t join Labour because they get excited about reducing water pollution. The focus of many of the debates, meetings and conferences I’ve attended is always on ‘proper Labour issues’ like housing, jobs and the NHS. Environmentalism, the implication too often goes, is the preserve of metropolitan hipsters with folding bicycles and ageing hippies who would be better off in the Green Party. Green issues are something to be humoured, before moving on to meatier, more comfortably Labour topics.
But as the result of the referendum will go on to show, the environment is not just a ‘nice thing to have’. It is essential to our society, our vision of social justice and yes our economy too. For us to have the social justice and fairer society we all claim to want, we need a sustainable green economy, investment in public transport that’s fit for purpose, improved energy efficiency in combination with other measures to tackle energy poverty and strong, international action on climate change to ensure the future of our children is both fair and secure. Without these protections, our country will become a dirtier, nastier, unhealthier place, with only the wealthy few being able to afford to seal themselves off.
But if we want this to happen, the Labour Party needs to pick up the green baton and run with it. And we can. We’ve done it before. For example, Sadiq Khan’s successful bid for mayor made air quality a central part of his campaign. Khan’s campaign was a very Labour campaign, focusing on issues that matter to people like housing and transport, but did not shy away from environmental issues. Instead, air quality was promoted as something that actually impacts people day-to-day lives, as the public health issue it truly is. Despite Zac’s true blue ecologist background, it was Khan’s Labour through and through campaign that won the green mantle, and the election, hands down.
In this fearful, post Brexit world, the environment is probably far from most people’s minds. But whatever the future is for Britain, environmental protection and action on climate change must be a central issue we will not let the Conservatives government dismantle. The stakes have never been higher. Now is the time for Labour to stand up and be counted, and not let the hard won gains of EU environmental legislation be lost without a fight.
Amy Deakin is a Member of the SERA Executive Committee