UK Unions and Labour Party Discuss Reclaiming Energy to Public Control
Forty gather in Sheffield, England, to discuss different approaches to reclaiming the power sector, addressing energy poverty, and honoring the country’s climate commitments.
In late June 2018, TUED brought together UK unions and a number of key allies for the latest in a series of discussions aimed at further developing trade union approaches to taking energy in the UK back under public, democratic control. These discussions took on fresh urgency following the UK Labour Party’s commitment to reclaim the energy system back to the public, first made in its May 2017 election manifesto, For the Many, Not the Few.
Participants gather in Wortley Hall’s Unite Ballroom
The meeting, which took place June 28-29 at historic Wortley Hall near Sheffield, England, brought together representatives from key UK unions—GMB, UNISON, Unite the Union, PCS, TSSA, BFAWU, NEU, and the TUC—as well as policy and movement allies. Unions from Norway and Greece also attended, as did energy democracy advocates from Barcelona, Brussels, and Berlin. A full list of attendees is here. The program is available here.
The Labour Party’s election Manifesto had pointed to the failures of electricity privatization, to the problems of energy poverty, and to the need to honor the UK’s climate commitments and put the UK on course to meet 60% of its energy needs by zero-carbon or renewable sources by 2030. It also committed to “take energy back into public ownership to deliver renewable energy, affordability for consumers, and democratic control” and called for the creation of “publicly owned, locally accountable energy companies and co-operatives to rival existing private energy suppliers.”
The Manifesto commitment was also endorsed at the UK’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) in September 2017, when the congress voted unanimously to support the Party’s position on energy, climate change, and just transition.
In opening the two-day meeting, TUED Coordinator Sean Sweeney referred to the new political situation presented by Labour’s impressive 2017 election results, Brexit, and the EU’s aggressively neoliberal approach to energy and climate policy. Regarding public ownership, he said:
“There’s a lot of programmatic work that needs to be done on this question. There’s a lot of disagreement among different unions about various energy sources. But what we have at the moment is a political opportunity to rally behind the idea of public ownership, which has the potential to shift the narrative across Europe. We have a situation now where the public narrative is rising, not just around energy but around other public services as well. This is a global phenomenon.”
Rebecca Long-Bailey, Labour Party Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) presented the current thinking within the party on how to realize its energy and climate commitments. The session provided an opportunity for those participating in the meeting to discuss the party’s current policy direction, which focuses on establishing a number of regional public energy companies.
Shadow secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey outlines the Labour Party’s energy vision
In a written statement, UNISON expressed concerns about regional public companies being expected to compete against existing private retail companies. It was felt that adding competitors to an already over-crowded market—where roughly 70 private retail companies already operate—would not be viable, and would also put further pressure on existing retail workers’ jobs.
Building on UNISON’s response, and mindful of the current positions on public ownership of GMB, Unite the Union and PCS, a TUED discussion document made the case for establishing a new national public entity that would encompass generation, transmission, distribution and supply. See: All, or Something? Towards a “Comprehensive Reclaiming” of the UK Power Sector.
Other important discussions covered issues of the overall energy mix, the challenge of meeting winter heating needs, and replacement fuels for the transport sector. John Storey of Unite the Union outlined key issues arising around storage technologies in the face of an increasing reliance on renewable generation, and highlighted the crucial issue of jobs estimates, emphasizing the urgent need for more detailed work in this area given wide variation in how these are defined and counted.
Matthew Lay of UNISON and Stuart Fegan of GMB provided information on the potential of hydrogen to play a role in the decarbonization of domestic heating systems, since most of the gas burned in the UK is not in the power sector, but in people’s homes for domestic heating.
TUED’s John Treat presented the most recent data on UK transport emissions—now the leading source of GHG emissions in the UK—as well as on electric vehicle sales, drawing attention to their marginal market position and limited potential to reduce transport-related emissions.
The meeting was also addressed by Costas Lapavitsas, Professor of Economics at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and former member of the Greek Parliament for Syriza. Lapavitsas offered reflections on the challenges likely to face any efforts to regain public, democratic control over energy as long as the UK remains part of the EU single market, and on what could change with the UK’s leaving the EU. His reflections drew from the arguments and observations made in this May 2018 article published by Jacobin magazine, “Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour vs. the Single Market.”
Costas Lapavitsas discusses challenges to energy renationalization under the EU single market
Discussions during the two days were frank and constructive, and those present seemed to share a sense that the group made a very real and important step forward in efforts to fulfill the Labour Party manifesto commitment to reclaiming energy to public control.
Recent TUED Working Papers
The term “Just Transition” has gained a firm foothold in the global policy discourse, but what do unions mean by it, and how can it be achieved?
Why a profit-based approach to renewable energy is failing to deliver the energy transition, and why we urgently need to pursue public alternatives.
Despite optimistic claims that the transition to a green-energy future is “inevitable” and even “well under way,” the evidence shows otherwise.
TUED would like to extend special thanks to Marlis Gensler and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung—Brussels Office, and to Bill Adams of the TUC Yorkshire & the Humber, for vital support in making the meeting both possible and successful.