Following recent short articles on this theme, here is a longer, more analytic treatment. A personal perspective from the author. Download the full article as a pdf file.
Is the UK Labour party facing up to a post-growth future?
by Mark H Burton1
For longer than most of us have been around, the major political parties have been united by the goal of making more economic “growth” happen. They have been divided on the means, but there has been little or no disagreement about the goal. Only the Green Party has taken a somewhat different line, at times questioning the primary goal of “growth”, although I would argue that, even in their case, this focus has been inconsistent and poorly developed2.
In a recent piece for the Labour affiliated socialist society SERA (“Labour’s Environment Campaign”), Labour front bencher, Chi Onwurah, in a piece I have replied to3, argues that this is what distinguishes Labour from the Greens:
“But what distinguishes us from the Green Party is their belief that economic growth and environmental sustainability cannot go hand in hand, that sustainability means abandoning the quest for greater economic prosperity and achieving a ‘steady-state’ of zero growth.”
However, there are indications that some sections of the Labour movement are at last beginning to accept that the pursuit of economic growth is highly problematic, and beginning to explore some alternatives. This ought not to be surprising, given the influence of the ecology movement on the New Left of late 60s and 70s. The New Left had some influence on Labour via things like the Greater London Council administration and the Institute for Workers Control, as well as through the influx of activists, feminist, Marxist, environmentalist, pacifist. However, the influence was marginalised both what Raymond Williams4 called the “productivism” of the mainstream labour movement and Labour’s neoliberal turn under Kinnock and Blair5.
I’ll review the evidence, or rather the straws in the wind, for an opening to the critique of “growth”,consider why it has been difficult for Labour politicians to accept the idea of a steady state economy, post-growth or degrowth, and finally look at what a Labour post-growth approach might look like6. I will draw upon things I’ve written elsewhere but also add in some new material.
Download the full article (pdf file).
2See the party’s policy page on the economy: there are scattered references questioning growth and GDP but nothing like a coherent critique and counter-proposal: https://policy.greenparty.org.uk/ec.html
3My response was published by SERA (and the piece by Onwurah is referenced there too):
It was somewhat shortened and the title changed by the SERA editor: the original piece is here: https://steadystatemanchester.net/2017/12/19/practical-degrowth-for-labour/
4Williams, R. (1982). Socialism and Ecology. London: SERA. Reprinted in Resources for Hope, London, Verso, 1989.
5Going further back, the socialisms of William Morris and Robert Blatchford both had a strong ecological streak as did what were arguably even earlier roots of the British socialist consciousness in the peasants’ revolt and the mobilisation of Diggers and Levellers during the English revolution.
6For convenience I will use these terms, degrowth, post-growth and refer to the Limits to Growth and the Steady State Economy in a rather interchangeable way: there are, however some distinctions among them. See Kerschner, C. (2010). Economic de-growth vs. steady-state economy. Journal of Cleaner Production, 18(6), 544–551. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2009.10.019; Demaria, F., Schneider, F., Sekulova, F., & Martinez-Alier, J. (2013). What is Degrowth? From an Activist Slogan to a Social Movement. Environmental Values, 22(2), 191–215. https://doi.org/10.3197/096327113X13581561725194
For an overview of degrowth as a community of ideas and practice, see D’Alisa, G., Demaria, F., & Kallis, G. (Eds.). (2014). Degrowth: a vocabulary for a new era. Abingdon, Routledge.