The Corbynomics of energy

Behind the media smokescreen, how green is Jeremy Corbyn? Alan Simpson digs deeper into Corbyn's energy policies

September 11, 2015
10 min read

corbyn-greenPhoto: Sleeves Rolled Up/Flickr

Jeremy Corbyn’s energy and climate manifesto – ‘Protecting Our Planet’ – occupies a different political space from the platitudes of the rest of the pack. It may not be enough to save the world, but without doubt it would transform Britain’s energy politics.

While Republican wannabes in the USA seek to live in denial of climate change, and Blairites in Britain wish to live in denial of leadership change, Corbyn prefers to focus on the realities of profound change.

Let’s be clear about his starting point. Corbyn is not about to nationalise half-dead utilities. His plans are more visionary. Corbyn grasps that an energy revolution is already taking place; one initially driven more by technology than politicians. Moreover, he recognises that this presents society with an opportunity to change the way we think and live on a planet that is rapidly running out of options.

Current British energy politics is corrupt, self-devouring and incompetent. When it isn’t screwing the planet it is screwing the public. The Energy Act passed by the 2010-15 coalition government saddled Britain with a ‘dog’s breakfast’ of subsidies that bail out the past at the expense of the future. The new Tory government has just put its foot on the Armageddon accelerator. And Labour has failed to say so.

It took the IMF to point out that, last year, Britain spent seven times as much subsidising fossil fuels as it did on supporting renewables. You would never have guessed this from reading the Tory press – or from listening to Labour. Often Labour silences merely acquiesced to the delusion that ‘renewables’ were an unaffordable burden on society, and the real threat to keeping the lights on.

It took Jeremy Corbyn to recognise that the only coherent starting point is to bin today’s subsidy soup of Contracts for Difference (CfDs), Capacity Payments and fossil fuel tax allowances – all written by Big Energy, for Big Energy – and start from somewhere else. But what he is advocating isn’t just about subsidies. It is a fundamental rethink of the nature of markets themselves.

Beyond ‘the fetish of centrism’

If the world doesn’t begin to roll back annual carbon emissions within the coming decade it may be too late to avoid the drift into a succession of uncontrollable climate crises. The Paris Summit looms. Compromises abound. Empty gestures and non-binding commitments fill all the chairs. Yet none of the attendees (especially Britain’s) will admit that the environmental exploitation game is over.

It falls to voices like Naomi Klein (in This Changes Everything) to say what the world knows privately, namely that:

‘The liberation of world markets, a process powered by the liberation of unprecedented amounts of fossil fuels from the earth, has dramatically sped up the same process that is liberating Arctic ice from existence… our economy is at war with many forms of life on Earth, including human life.’

This is what the politics of the centre ground has failed to grasp. When Klein attacks ‘the fetish of centrism’ – its obsession with reasonableness, splitting the difference and not getting excited about anything – she could have been describing the Labour lLeadership contest without Corbyn.

Clean, green and definitely keen

Where Jeremy Corbyn has begun to excite people is in his proposal is to follow the lessons of California and Germany and delivering a complete restructuring of Britain’s energy market (and all the institutions that govern it). He wants us to live more lightly on the planet, and to do so within an energy politics that is both sustainable and democratic.

Corbyn’s problems will not be about the plan, but with those determined to sabotage it

Smart technologies give him the opportunity to do so, but ‘smart politics’ is what will become the real game changer.

As his commitments made clear, Corbyn wants this energy revolution written into the DNA of tomorrow’s towns, cities and regions. His proposed Energy Commission will focus on energy market changes that must tread more lightly on the planet, developing smart energy systems that will:

• Deliver more, but consume less
• Use clean energy before dirty
• Put energy saving before more consumption
• Use smart technologies to run localised storage, balancing and distribution mechanisms
• Shift the costs of grid access and grid balancing from clean energy across to dirty, and
• Be open, democratic, sustainable and accountable (in ways that today’s market is not).

(From Corbyn’s policy document Protecting Our Planet.)

Corbyn is proposing to turn today’s market rules upside down. He wants an open market not a closed cartel, a multitude of generators not an exclusive club. He wants towns and cities to become their own virtual power stations, and local communities to have the right to buy (at discounted prices) the ‘clean’ energy they generate for themselves.

Utopia? No. Look around the world and you will see this is already happening. Corbyn has plenty of places to pinch ideas from. As he pointed out

‘Over the next few decades 8 countries, 55 cities and 60 regions are aiming to have 100% renewable electricity, heating/cooling and/or transport systems.’

Corbyn wants to put Britain amongst them… and that is what is exciting people.

The pursuit of ‘less’

Although the debates about whether he can do it are likely to focus on technologies and market structures, the core of Corbyn’s message runs deeper: we have to change the way we think if we are to change the way we live. It means developing markets that sell less in preference to more. The simplest, and best, example is in energy efficiency.

It is a truism that the most important energy is the energy you don’t consume. Making Britain’s housing more thermally efficient is central to doing so – and it creates the most jobs. But the process has to begin without ambiguities.

Zero-carbon housing has to become the norm, not the exception. Refurbishment, to ‘near-zero’ carbon standards, must also be the basis upon which Britain ‘ups its game’. In Germany, this has become the cornerstone of lending (at 1 per cent interest rates) within their energy efficiency programme. Moreover, it is a programme driven by their banks, not their energy companies.

For young (and not so young) Germans, it has become a key route into secure work, high skills and becoming part of the solution, not the problem. For the German exchequer, it has become a huge source of internal revenue flows, from taxes paid and benefits avoided. For citizens and localities, it is turning ‘energy’ into something smart, sustainable, democratic and accountable.

But will it fly?

Corbyn’s problems will not be about the plan, but with those determined to sabotage it. The Tories are already doing their best to scupper any chance of a clean energy revolution in Britain. They will not be short of Labour supporters. Many of those who have already accepted the corporations’ shilling will queue up to bang the drum of ‘doom, doom’ and fan delusions about the lights going out.

The same fossil fuel interests that have poured billions of dollars into sabotaging climate change initiatives in the USA will do the same to the UK. Mock research, crap journalism and cheap politicians will team up to prop up the past. So Corbyn will need to build his own ‘Coalition of the Willing’: those unafraid to build a different future. My guess is that he will find some unexpected partners in the process.

A plethora of community energy co-ops have an obvious interest in such a devolution of powers and duties. So too will some, though not all, of the trade unions. But the real strength of the process is that its embrace runs much wider.

In different countries, insurance companies and the telecommunications industry are already racing to get on board. So too are some of the banks and pension funds. Perversely, Corbyn may also find himself with a progressive majority of support in the House of Lords. And across the land, towns, cities and regions of all political hues are likely to want to climb on board this bandwagon.

In fact, all of those looking for a life beyond casino economics would all find a place in Corbyn’s transformation plans. The question will be whether ‘Grumpy Labour’ can bear the thought of transformation.

The man or the moment?

The biggest mistake we may all be making, however, is to focus on personal qualities Jeremy Corbyn may or may not bring as a party leader and a would-be prime minister.

Jeremy is my friend. He will be the person he has always been; an antidote to personality politics. But what he touches on may be something far bigger than himself.

David Cameron’s about-turn over the number of refugees to be admitted into the UK was driven more by the public response to the death of Aylan Kurdi than by any burst of compassion or conscience on his part. Humanity bucked the market. Machine politics was thrown into reverse in order to get back in touch with the response of society. Suddenly MPs were queuing up to take part in a numbers-based compassion contest. But that isn’t enough.

Faced with a genuinely global issue, we need a different global approach. Neoliberalism’s mullahs never like to address the fact that tidal movements of capital invariably trigger tidal movements of people. It isn’t the rich who normally pick up the consequences. It is normally the poor who give sanctuary to the destitute.

The market can be made to provide the resources needed to accommodate these tidal movements of climate, conflict and market refugees. Revisit the case for a Tobin Tax on speculative capital movements and you have all the funds you need to deliver a global response to problems disproportionately being tackled by the poor. Make the UN the recipient of the tax revenues and you also have the delivery vehicle.

Corbyn is the only candidate in the pack likely to invite us to look at issues in such a ‘bigger picture’ perspective. And that may be what society is looking for.

So there you have it, the boy on the bicycle – lacking even a passing interest in playground/positional politics – who just wants to save the world. If Jeremy Corbyn turns out to be the zeitgeist we’ve been waiting for, then the question is not whether he is up to the job, but whether we are. We will soon know the answer.

Alan Simpson was the Labour MP for Nottingham South from 1992 to 2010.