A Labour covenant for nature and land
Labour Together's editorials on the pressing issues of the day are based on the politics of Labour's Covenant. In this editorial we explore how Labour can place the politics of nature at the heart of national reconstruction.
After years of the environment dominating the airwaves and party manifestos alike, nature is on the back foot once more. The Times reports the government is ditching the ‘green crap’, reducing the fund available to farmers for transforming agricultural land to nature-friendly forests, peatlands and wildflower meadows from £800m to £50m. North sea oil and gas exploration is back on the cards. Increasingly, the environment is seen as a luxury extra, something that can be safely discarded when the real intrudes.
Herein lies the danger for Labour. If environmental politics is successfully positioned in opposition to a material politics of the national interest, and Labour is seen to take the side of the former at the expense of the latter, it is in serious trouble. Any number of polls showing public support for action on the environment are irrelevant the moment such action clashes against the wellbeing and prosperity of ordinary people. The cost of living crisis means immediate material concerns must come first, while the war in Ukraine pushes national food security to the forefront of the political agenda.
How, then, can Labour prevent the dichotomy between an environmental politics and politics of national security and material comfort developing? Our view is that a covenantal approach, rooted in a proper human anthropology, can help embed environmentalism in our economy and our society, and ensure that it enriches rather than impoverishes human life.
At present, debate around climate change and the environment takes place at a high degree of abstraction. It is either a trivial form of ethical consumerism, or else purely technocratic, with solutions so rarefied as to imply no impact on ordinary people’s lives whatsoever. On the one hand we have Allegra Stratton, who was spokesperson for the COP26 summit in Glasgow, suggesting that individuals might do their bit by stopping rinsing dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. On the other, we have the tendency of Labour to focus on the global, not the national. Both view politics as a matter of pulling the right levers to produce the right results.
A covenantal approach would seek to reconcile estranged interests: rural and urban; farmer and environmentalist; ecology and industry. It would view the environment and nature not as siloed, discrete areas of policy, discardable when crisis hits, but as part of a wider strategy of national renewal. It would ensure that our precious inheritance, the land and all that it sustains, was managed in the mutual and multi-generational interests of all, perhaps partly stewarded by new forms of trust. And, above all, it would view humans as creatures who are part of nature, not separate to it.
This is not just academic. Take the future of farming, where two competing perspectives are currently engaged in a heated culture war. Radical rewilders and environmentalists desire a human retreat from the world, allowing wild nature to flourish uninhibited. Others, advocates for intensive farming (who are apparently ascendant in the current government), believe that the restrictions nature imposes on us can and should be eliminated through technology. The carrying capacity of the land, the year-on-year degradation of the soil, the emissions resulting from high-input farming; all these can be safely ignored.
The latter group might support some combination of highly intensive farming, lab-created food, and cheap imports – with nature at best an afterthought. But though rewilders would object, the natural corollary of huge swathes of land rendered unproductive through ‘wildness’ is highly intensive food production elsewhere and so the implications of their worldview are not so different.
The covenantal view, however, would encourage low-intensity, low-input farming on a wide scale, respectful of the accord between humans and nature that persisted for millennia in Britain until the 19th Century. This position is especially suited to our party, for it honours the labour that reforges our distinctive landscapes each year. But it would not be a rural romanticism. Domestic food production should increase, and this can be done through new farming techniques (vertical and precision farming, for example) and a greater focus on arable production, rather than further intensification and the lowering of standards.
This approach applies to much else beyond farming, too: to the necessity of a robust and green industrial sector, as we abandon the illusions of the service economy, for example, and to housing policy, where we desperately need to win support for more houses to be built. In each instance, a covenantal environmentalism would honour the labour of workers, act in the material interests of people in this country, and shore up Britain’s national interest.
When Winter bites this year, and with it comes the prospect of food shortages, the pressure to abandon environmental policy will become greater still. Labour will need to avoid the mistake of the Green Party, and place its politics of land, nature and the environment at the heart of a self-interested politics of national renewal.
Read the last editorial ‘How should Labour respond to the government's levelling up paper?’ and the complete series here. To read Labour’s Covenant click here.