Recent elections in several countries suggest a worker-environment message is disrupting the norm
Sean Sweeney reports for TUED
The May 5th landslide victory of the union-supported and left of center New Democratic Party (NDP) over the ruling Progressive Conservatives (PC) in Alberta, Canada, came as a complete shock–particularly to the oil interests that have sunk billions of dollars into the tar sands and had until now largely controlled the politics of the province. The PC have been in power for 44 years (since 1971) having won 12 consecutive elections prior to last week’s election.
After operating as almost fringe party in Alberta, the NDP amassed 53 seats — dramatically increasing the 4 seat tally gained during the 2012 elections. Meanwhile, the PC went from 70 seats in 2012 to just 10. Significantly, the NDP’s manifesto stated, “We will take leadership on the issue of climate change and make sure Alberta is part of crafting solutions with stakeholders, other provinces and the federal government. First steps will include an energy efficiency strategy and a renewable energy strategy.” The language, while vague, nevertheless marks a major departure from Alberta’s version of ‘drill baby drill.’
The dramatic shift in public opinion in Alberta may sound like a one-off. But perhaps the NDP win is indicative of some kind of trend? Recent election results in other parts of the world suggest that progressive pro-worker parties that put energy transition and climate protection clearly on the agenda, while at the same time clearly opposing austerity, cuts in services and privatization, have done well—suggesting a new ‘class and climate politics’ could be on the rise.
In Australia, during the March 2015 elections in New South Wales, the Greens took votes away from the Labor Party, surprisingly winning four seats following a campaign that focused considerably on climate change and the rising economic and political power of the coal and gas corporations. The party called for a complete ban on coal seam gas (CSG), and it opposes privatization and attacks on public services.
In India, the new Aam Aadmi party (AAP) won a landslide in the February 2015 elections in Delhi by advocating for an end to energy poverty, coal industry corruption, and for electric rickshaws to fight pollution. The 10 million citizens of Delhi voted overwhelmingly for the new party, which has criticized energy privatization while actively supporting an aggressive scale up of solar power (20% of generation by 2025) involving the creation of “solar community centers” for slum dwellers and low income communities. The AAP’s election manifesto is here
In Greece, despite enormous pressure from the Troika to abandon its election commitments, the recently elected governing party Syriza is trying to implement the platform adopted at its first Congress in July 2013. Syriza’s emphatic January 25th victory was mainly due to the fact that it has said a clear ‘no’ to EU-imposed austerity, but the party’s program also refers to the need for “a new paradigm of social, environmental and economic development” and for the “ecological transformation of the economy.” Syriza says it will pursue the “practice of democratic planning and social control on all levels of central and local government.” In its election manifesto, Syriza declared it was for “ecological transformation in development of energy production.”
In Spain, too, the new ‘movement-party’ Podemos is in the process of developing a bold economic and environmental program grounded in ‘deprivatization’ of vital services, specifically power generation and health care. Launched in January 2014, the party did well in the elections to the EU parliament, winning 8% of the vote and Podemos presently (May 2015) stands at around 16.5% in national polls. Podemos in 2014 adopted an “energy for the people” policy to fight pollution and climate change, and called for a binding national commitment to reduce emissions by 55% by 2030. Last August Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias said “the first goal of Podemos will be the social and democratic control of all energy sources and electrical power generation, and to end the oligopoly of the (energy) sector. With the public control of energy and oil, the next step will be the rapid deployment of renewable energy through public investment. Podemos will support the self-generation of distributed renewable power, encourage energy cooperatives, and to facilitate renewable energy coming into the grid.”
The UK election results on May 7 seems to suggest that ‘class and climate’ politics is not resonating with everyone. But it is worth noting that the combined Green Party, Scots Nationalist (SNP) and Labour vote was larger than the victorious Conservatives. The SNP and Greens – both of which are more supportive of energy democracy, renewable sources of power and oppose privatization – took votes away from the nervously pro-fracking and climate silent Labour Party. The consequences have been disastrous for Labour–which now faces an existential crisis of its own.
Meanwhile, back in Alberta, premier elect Rachel Notley will not be waging all out war on the oil companies that have invested in the tar sands, but the NDP’s proposal to restructure the royalties’ system for tar oil is already provoking both anxiety and opposition from oil industry executives. And it is pretty certain that, unlike the old ruling party, the NDP will not be pushing the Obama administration to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.
A new politics seems to be emerging, one that reflects the reality that workers and people generally are inseparable from the ecosystems that sustain life. This is a movement-building message. It is a politics that says no to both destructive extractionism and to ‘austerity without end.’ More important, it can move people into action because it is proposing practical alternatives to the current model based on endless (and jobless) ‘growth’, socioecological degradation, and grotesque levels of inequality.
Sean Sweeney is the coordinator of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) and directs the International Program for Labor, Climate & Environment at the Murphy Institute, City University of New York.
TUED is a project of the Global Labour Institute Network