by Sacha Ismail
About 60 people of many different ages, backgrounds and politics attended a Campaign against Climate Change meeting in Bethnal Green in East London on 7 February. Although the main organisers appeared to be members of Respect Renewal (I recognised people including the ISG's Liam McUaid, SWP defector Kevin Ovenden and NUS presidential candidate Ruqayyah Collector), it was a good meeting with some lively and sharp debate.
The event had been called in the run up to the 9 February CCC Trade Union conference; the speakers were CCC organiser Phil Thornhill, CWU executive member Tony Kearns, Green councillor Romayne Phoenix, George Galloway – and AWL member Robin Sivapalan, speaking on behalf of the Climate Camp collective and the new Workers’ Climate Action network.
Robin spoke about the need for climate change activists to look to the labour movement and vice versa – but for environmental issues to be integrated with workers’ concerns on the basis of anti-capitalist class struggle, not tacked on to trade unionism as just one more in a list of worthy causes. He emphasised how, in addition to the obvious middle-class prejudices of some green activists (part of the reason why the Climate Camp has not been quicker in making links with eg workers at Heathrow, though this is now changing), the conservatism of the trade union movement is a vital factor in preventing the development of the kind of movement we need.
This is true not just in terms of unions like Unite supporting airport expansion, more nuclear power stations etc, but also the conservative syndicalism which prevents workers’ struggles attaining the political character necessary to hegemonise broader forces. The refusal of the RMT bureaucracy to allow Metronet workers to continue their recent dispute on the basis of demanding renationalisation – a demand with obvious environmental as well as safety benefits – is a case in point.
He stressed that workers are not a stage army to be wheeled on in support of scientists poised to change the world through their sheer knowledgableness, but self-liberating agents whose power at the heart of production gives them the ability to remake themselves in order to remake society. We are not "armed only with science", but with the power of class action and solidarity.
Such an approach, which is that taken by Workers’ Climate Action, implies ideas which are in essence environmental "transitional demands": things like cutting the working week without loss of pay, free public transport, public ownership of energy, and workers’ plans to reshape industry on a democratic and sustainable basis.
Tony Kearns did a decent turn, stressing the importance of environmental politics for effective trade unionism and indicting capitalism’s drive for profit as the basic cause of climate change, though he didn’t make any real proposals for moving forward. Phil Thornhill’s comments on the science of climate change were very interesting and most of his prescriptions unobjectionable, though the underlying politics were those of liberal lobbying. Romayne Phoenix described herself as a socialist, but some of her politics were far from what the AWL understands by the term: she called for "fair trade, not free trade", urged people to get themselves elected as councillors (a role she seems to see in primarily managerial terms) and put a lot of her emphasis on individual lifestyle changes - which as Tony Kearns pointed out, is exactly where government and big business want it to be.
George Galloway’s speech (which didn't seem to have involved much preparation) combined some cheap anti-capitalist demagogy with all kinds of weird nonsense, including what a wonderful world God has created for us and citing a Muslim magazine about the number of galaxies in the universe. He went on to reference war mobilisation, state planning and “people working together” during World War 2 as the kind of approach necessary to defeat the threat of environmental disaster. This was a theme picked up by many of the older speakers from the floor.
In his closing contribution, Robin took task with some of these ideas. Yes, we need to unite, but the question is what kind of unity, with whom and for what goals? To Galloway’s invocation of the spirit of the blitz, he counterposed workers’ unity in the class struggle, drawing in environmental campaigners, students, women’s rights activists etc, to build an alliance capable of halting climate change by defeating capitalism. He pointed out the divisive nature of religious identity as a political organiser, and added that opposition to school privatisation, which had been discussed during the meeting, had to include opposition to the control of schools by religious organisations. He defended the importance of sharp political debate in developing the ideas necessary to build an effective movement.
This last idea was not shared by everyone; in addition to a smug, smirking dismissal of Robin as a Trotskyist sectarian by Galloway, the general tone was exemplified by Phil Thornhill’s comment that we should worry less about discussing ideas, and get on with doing things. Of course the two are not counterposed; and in fact the most positive thing about this meeting was precisely that it featured such a healthy debate.
There are plans to create a local campaign in Tower Hamlets; hopefully, alongside united campaigning, the debate will continue.