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Labour Party: History, Beliefs and Environmental Policy

In this article we’ll explore the history of the UK’s Labour Party, its current leadership, and its views on environmental issues.
Green News
2023-09-25T00:00:00.000Z
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Throughout its history, the Labour Party has undergone a remarkable transformation, evolving from its beginnings as a champion of the working class to its current status as a modern political force with a resolute commitment to a greener and more sustainable future. 

As the Conservative Party grapples with its own identity and seeks to differentiate itself in the eyes of the electorate, the Labour Party finds itself uniquely poised to embrace the mantle of environmental stewardship. Under the leadership of Keir Starmer, Labour faces the challenge of redefining itself for a new generation of voters, while also confronting the shifting political landscape, where the battle lines are increasingly drawn on the front of environmental issues. 

👉In this article we’ll explore the history of the UK’s Labour Party, its current leadership, and its views on environmental issues.

The history of the Labour party

Labour Party Origins 

The Labour Party was created in the late 19th century as a response to the needs of the urban working class who had just gained the right to vote in 1884. As the trade union movement gained momentum, some of its members sought political representation.

Around the same time, socialist groups like the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the Fabian Society, the Social Democratic Federation, and the Scottish Labour Party formed to bring socialism into politics. While the ILP had some success in the 1895 general election, its leader Keir Hardie saw the importance of uniting with other left-wing groups.

In 1899, there was a proposal to unify all left-wing organisations into a single entity to support Parliamentary candidates. The Trade Union Congress (TUC) backed this idea, leading to a conference to discuss the matter. At the conference, attendees from various working-class and left-wing groups agreed to create the Labour Representation Committee (LRC). The LRC aimed to strengthen MPs endorsed by trade unions and represent working-class interests.

Although the 1990 general election didn't allow enough time for effective campaigning, two LRC-backed candidates were elected, and by the time of the 1906 general election, the LRC had secured 29 seats.

After this election, on February 15, 1906, the LRC officially adopted the name "The Labour Party", with Keir Hardie as its first leader.

Labour Party rise and first government

In the early 20th century, the Labour Party embarked on its journey to shape the landscape of British politics. Their watershed moment arrived in 1910 when they achieved an impressive 42 seats in the House of Commons.

The pivotal expansion of the voting franchise in 1918 marked a seismic shift, nearly tripling the electorate and providing fertile ground for Labour's burgeoning influence. As the Liberal Party grappled with internal discord, Labour's support soared, culminating in an achievement of 142 seats in 1922, securing their position as the official opposition.

💡The official opposition is the largest political party in the House of Commons that is not in government. 

The Conservative Party lost its parliamentary majority, ushering in the first-ever Labour government, led by Ramsay MacDonald as Prime Minister. During their tenure, the government achieved significant legislative milestones, including the landmark Wheatley Housing Act and an array of transformative social policies.

Under Ramsay MacDonald's leadership, the Labour Party sought to project itself as a moderate and stabilising force, deliberately distancing itself from radical actions such as strikes while accentuating its commitment to reform through democratic processes. However, the government's reign was brief, lasting only ten months, before the Conservative Party reclaimed power in 1924.

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The Labour Party in the mid-20th century

In the 1929 general election, the Labour Party, for the first time, became the largest party in the House of Commons. While MacDonald's government initially undertook progressive measures, like appointing Margaret Bondfield as the first woman cabinet minister and passing legislation to benefit workers and address housing issues, it soon grappled with the effects of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression. 

By 1931, unemployment had soared, and the government faced a fiscal crisis, leading to internal divisions, eventually culminating in the expulsion of party leader Ramsay MacDonald. The subsequent general election was catastrophic for Labour, and the party’s credibility suffered. 

By the 1935 general election, however, the party had rebounded and it managed to secure over a third of the vote. This period of time was also marked by rising tensions in Europe, causing the Labour Party to shift from its pacifist stance to oppose Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy towards Nazi Germany. 

The Labour Party returned to power in 1940 following the resignation of Neville Chamberlain as part of the wartime coalition. A number of senior Labour figures took up prominent positions within the government, which was led by Conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Post-war Labour

At the end of WWII, Labour contested the 1945 general election against Churchill's Conservatives, securing an unexpected landslide victory. Under Labour Party leader Clement Attlee, the government nationalised key industries and utilities and established the "cradle to grave" welfare state, including the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948, which remains one of Labour's most celebrated accomplishments. The party also initiated the decolonisation process, granting independence to several nations, and decided to develop Britain's nuclear weapons programme. 

The 1951 general election saw Labour's narrow defeat to the Conservatives, even though they garnered a larger portion of the popular vote. Yet, many of Labour's reforms became part of the post-war consensus, enduring for decades. 

After this defeat, Labour underwent 13 years of opposition marked by an ideological divide between the party’s left-wing and right-wing followers. Disagreements persisted within the party over nuclear disarmament, Britain's potential EEC membership, and Clause IV (which symbolised Labour's nationalisation stance). 

During the early 1960s, the Conservative government faced economic challenges and scandals. Capitalising on this, Labour, led by Harold Wilson, returned to power in 1964 with a slender majority. Wilson's tenure saw profound social and educational reforms, including the abolition of the death penalty, the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality, and the end of theatre censorship. Additionally, they prioritised educational expansion with the creation of the Open University. 

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1970s to 1990s

Despite initial economic prosperity and low unemployment, Wilson's government struggled with a large inherited trade deficit, leading to unsuccessful efforts to prevent the pound's devaluation. This ultimately meant that Labour lost the 1970 general election to Edward Heath's Conservatives. 

However, they would be re-elected in the 1974 election, and Harold Wilson led as Prime Minister until he unexpectedly resigned in 1976 for health reasons, succeeded by James Callaghan. 

Callaghan's government initially focused on wage restraint to control inflation and faced strained relations with trade unions. As Labour's majority dwindled due to by-election losses and party defections, they sought support from smaller parties, including a short-lived Lib-Lab pact with the Liberals and deals with nationalist parties. The latter's support was contingent on devolution, but 1979 referendums on Scottish and Welsh devolution didn't yield the required backing. 

After failing to advance the Scottish Assembly, the SNP withdrew its support. This resulted in the Conservative Party triggering a vote of confidence for Callaghan’s government, prompting a general election in 1979. While the economy and Labour's poll ratings had improved by 1978, Callaghan's decision to extend Labour’s wage restraint policy resulted in a series of significant strikes. This discontent paved the way for Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives to win the 1979 general election, despite Labour maintaining a strong vote share.

The Margaret Thatcher era

Margaret Thatcher, who was elected in 1979, held onto power for over a decade. During this time, Labour suffered a significant defeat in the 1983 election under the leadership of Michael Foot, who advocated for left-wing policies. Following this defeat, Neil Kinnock took the reins of the Labour Party, gradually steering it away from its less popular positions.

Despite making progress in the 1987 election, the Conservatives remained in control. Thatcher's resignation in 1990, largely attributed to the controversial poll tax and an impending economic downturn, led to John Major assuming leadership of the Conservative Party.

Leading up to the 1992 election, polls indicated a favourable outlook for Labour. However, the Conservatives managed to hold onto power, albeit with a reduced majority. Neil Kinnock subsequently resigned, and John Smith took his place as leader of the Labour Party. Tensions persisted within Labour between the traditional left and the ‘modernisers’.

British flag

New Labour

Under the leadership of Tony Blair, the Labour Party underwent significant changes. Tony Blair championed "New Labour", emphasising the need to appeal to the growing middle class and to deviate from traditional Labour policies that might be seen as holding back more ambitious voters. He instituted changes to the party's structure and policies, including ending block voting by labour unions and repealing "Clause IV", which was the party's historic commitment to nationalising industries.

In 1997, under this new branding, the Labour Party won a landmark victory, securing its largest parliamentary majority ever. Blair's government implemented several significant reforms, including establishing a national minimum wage and devolving power to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. However, Blair's support for the Iraq War in 2003 significantly diminished his popularity, with many viewing the war as illegal and a breach of international law.

Despite the controversy, Labour won the 2005 general election, albeit with a reduced majority. Blair eventually stepped down in 2007 and was succeeded by Gordon Brown, under whose leadership the party faced significant challenges, including the 2007-2008 financial crisis. The party's popularity declined, with many attributing the slump to Brown's leadership. A "cash for peerages" scandal further harmed the party's reputation and finances.

In the 2010 general election, Labour won the second-largest number of seats but failed to form a coalition. Brown subsequently resigned, marking the end of 13 years of Labour government.

2010 to 2020

Following the resignation of Gordon Brown in 2010, Ed Miliband became the leader of the Labour Party. Miliband's tenure was marked by an emphasis on "responsible capitalism" and the need for the state to have a greater role in rebalancing the economy. Despite these efforts, the 2015 general election saw Labour defeated, leading to Miliband's resignation.

The subsequent leadership election brought Jeremy Corbyn to the forefront. Initially seen as a fringe candidate, Corbyn's rise to the leadership was met with a significant surge in party membership. However, this time was also marked by internal party tensions, particularly regarding the Brexit issue. Many Labour MPs felt Corbyn did not do enough to campaign against Brexit, leading to significant internal conflict, including mass resignations from the Shadow Cabinet and a failed no-confidence vote.

The 2019 general election was pivotal for the Labour Party. Under Corbyn, the party's manifesto was notably left-leaning, with plans to nationalise significant sectors of the economy. However, the results were devastating for Labour, which secured its lowest number of seats since 1935. Some attribute this massive defeat to the party's stance on Brexit, the radical nature of its economic policies, or a combination of both.

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Present day Labour Party

After Labour's 2019 election loss, Jeremy Corbyn announced his resignation as the party's leader. Keir Starmer was subsequently elected as the leader of the Labour Party in April 2020. He has been at the helm ever since. 

Who is Keir Starmer and what are his views? 

Born in London on September 2nd, 1962, Keir Starmer spent his formative years in Surrey. He embarked on his academic journey at the University of Leeds, earning a degree in law, before furthering his education with a postgraduate degree at the University of Oxford. Keir then went on to become a barrister, specialising primarily in criminal defence work and human rights cases. It wasn't until 2015 that his political career began when he secured a seat in the House of Commons and was appointed as the Shadow Minister for Immigration under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

Keir Starmer's political beliefs have often been described as ambiguous and hard to define. Initially, when elected as the Labour leader, he was perceived to belong to the party's soft left, but gradually he has veered towards the political centre-ground. Some now even view him as having shifted towards the centre-right of the party. 

Starmer's relationship with socialism has undoubtedly evolved over time. During the 1980s and 1990s, he penned articles for socialist publications and held views advocating for trade unions. In the early 2020s, he identified as a socialist, driven by a "burning desire to tackle inequality and injustice". However, by December 2021, as he aimed to bring the Labour Party closer to the political centre, he was more reticent about the socialist label.

So what exactly are his views? Starmer's own vision, as described in interviews, encompasses fixing the economy, addressing climate change as an opportunity, reforming public services, ensuring equal opportunities for every child, and creating a safe environment.

Domestically, Starmer has underscored the importance of reforming public institutions, supporting local governance, and devolution. He has vocalised plans to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with an elected assembly, and he has criticised the Conservative Party for bestowing peerages on their allies. 

Starmer also backs public ownership and investment in the UK's public services, especially the NHS. Though Starmer's stance on public ownership has shifted somewhat; while he initially supported the renationalisation of several sectors, he has since adopted a more pragmatic approach, focusing on specific sectors like the UK’s railways and energy. 

Another example of his shifting policies can be seen in his stance to taxation. Although he had previously committed to raising the income tax on the top earners and ending tax evasion by corporations, he receded from the income tax promise in 2023. 

Another significant aspect of his political stance is his robust backing of policies and initiatives dedicated to tackling climate change. This issue is gaining prominence in UK politics, as we'll delve into shortly.

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Run up to the next general election

As the political season in the UK kicks into high gear with MPs reconvening in Westminster and the looming annual party conferences, all eyes are on Keir Starmer and the Labour Party's preparations. 

The Conservative Party, grappling with the aftermath of the "partygate" scandal that led to Boris Johnson's resignation and the subsequent challenging tenure of Liz Truss, finds its dominance threatened. Polls over the past year show the Labour Party as being in the lead. However, Starmer, remains cautious, emphasising that winning the upcoming general election requires an exceptional performance from his party, akin to the monumental swing that brought Tony Blair to power in 1997.

Starmer's leadership thus far has been defined by methodical reshaping. Eager to distance the party from the shadows of previous allegations, he tackled accusations of anti-Semitism head-on and enacted significant purges. He steered Labour away from its far-left elements, realigning more towards a socially conservative direction (a move that has had its share of critics). 

As for policy, Starmer strategically distanced himself from several of Labour's hallmark promises like the abolition of university tuition fees, focusing instead on wooing the business community and advocating for fiscal discipline. A standout proposal is the hefty £28 billion annual investment in green technologies. 

Yet, this cautious rebranding presents its risks. Labour's platform now shows considerable similarities with the Tories, especially on security and immigration. This overlap threatens to alienate a section of its base, leaving them in search of alternatives. 

In Scotland for example, the Scottish National Party, even after Nicola Sturgeon's departure, remains appealing due to its progressive stance on societal issues. Meanwhile, in southern England, the Liberal Democrats could serve as a refuge for those disenchanted with the Conservatives. Starmer's greatest challenge might lie in northern England; if the working class chooses abstention, it might dent Labour's hopes for a strong majority in the House of Commons. The road to the 2024 general election is fraught with challenges, and only time will reveal if Starmer's approach will pave the way for a Labour victory.

Environmental battle lines being drawn

The issue of climate change has become a new battleground between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party in the UK, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak taking a strategic approach to highlight differences in their environmental policies. 

This shift in strategy became evident during the July 2023 Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election when the Conservatives targeted London Mayor Sadiq Khan's ultra-low emission zone and criticised Labour's low-emission strategy. This change in tactics raised concerns that Sunak might see challenging green policies as an electoral advantage, leading to potential rollbacks, delays, and even the abandonment of climate policies that could burden consumers.

Unfortunately, these concerns have materialised and it looks as though the Conservative Party wants to make the issue of climate change a political battleground between the two parties. In a clear departure from the environmental strategies of his predecessors, Rishi Sunak has outlined plans to delay certain UK climate targets, including pushing back the 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel cars to 2035, reducing the phase-out target for gas boilers to 80%, and axing plans for insulation standards upgrades.

While these moves have garnered support from some right-of-center media outlets, they have raised concerns in the business sector.

Labour, on the other hand, has pledged to overturn some of these policy changes, particularly regarding the ban on new petrol and diesel vehicles. However, they have shown caution in their approach to decarbonising home heating, indicating a willingness to re-evaluate these measures if they win the election.

The Conservatives aim to present themselves as pro-consumer, while Labour emphasises the long-term benefits of their "Green Transformation" despite short-term discomfort, creating a complex and evolving narrative in the run-up to the election.
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What is Labour’s environmental stance?

Green and digital future

The Labour Party envisions a stronger green and digital future for the UK, aiming to harness the country's potential to confront the climate crisis while capitalising on the advancements of the digital era. 

By 2030, the Party aspires to seize the economic benefits of a low-carbon and digital economy, making significant cuts in emissions, reversing nature's decline, and promoting domestic production and sales. The Labour Party also criticises the Conservative Government's inaction, citing climate delay as a major obstacle, and highlighting concerns about the loss of green jobs.

The Labour Party sees the climate emergency not only as a serious challenge but also as a significant opportunity to establish a more equitable and prosperous nation. The Labour Party proposes transitioning traditional industries, such as steel and automotive, to more sustainable models. They advocate for cleaner energy sources, such as renewables and nuclear, while also emphasising homegrown manufacturing and energy security. In addition, they aim to revolutionise domestic heating systems, promote cleaner air and green spaces, and enhance public transport accessibility for all communities.

The Labour Party stresses that the green and digital futures of the UK are intertwined; advancements in one sector can boost the other, allowing the country to seize numerous opportunities in both areas.

Labour’s ‘Green Transformation’

The UK Labour Party's "Green Transformation" paper, published in 2019, outlines the party's specific environmental policies. In this document, Labour acknowledges the historical responsibility of the UK for contributing to climate change and emphasises the need for significant transformations in various sectors of the economy to reduce emissions. The Green Transformation paper outlines Labour’s framework for achieving a more sustainable and environmentally responsible future for the UK.

The document outlines Labour's key environmental priorities as being: 

  • Climate Change Action - Labour commits to leading efforts to tackle climate change by aligning with the Paris Agreement's goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C. They emphasise adapting to unavoidable climate change, especially for vulnerable communities, and supporting climate efforts globally.
  • Air and Water Quality - Labour aims to address severe air pollution, causing thousands of deaths annually. They pledge to tackle air pollution, particularly in urban areas. Additionally, they recognise the need to improve water quality in rivers, lakes, and coastal waters.
  • Biodiversity Protection - Labour acknowledges the decline in biodiversity in the UK and pledges to reverse this trend. They highlight the importance of protecting natural habitats and the impact of biodiversity loss on food systems.

What policies has Labour pledged to implement if it is elected? 

Let's take a look at some of the headline policies that the Labour Party has proposed in order to meet its environmental objectives. 

Action on Energy:

  • Transition to low-carbon and renewable sources - Labour aims to ensure that 60% of the UK's energy comes from low-carbon or renewable sources within twelve years of coming to power.
  • Investment in flexible energy networks - Labour plans to upgrade and invest in flexible energy networks capable of supporting a transition to decentralised renewable energy. This includes bringing the UK's energy transmission and distribution networks back into public ownership, using local microgrids, batteries for energy storage, and connecting renewable energy sources to the grid.
  • Promotion of renewable projects - Labour intends to remove barriers to onshore wind projects put in place by the Conservative government and invest in wind, solar, and other renewable projects to create a thriving renewables industry with long-term job opportunities across the UK.

Action on Housing:

  • Upgrade homes for energy efficiency - Labour plans to upgrade 4 million homes to Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) band C in their first term, investing £2.3 billion per year. This investment will provide financial support for households to insulate their homes.
  • Local authority-driven insulation schemes - The take-up and delivery of insulation schemes will be driven by local authorities. This initiative aims to save households money, improve health and well-being, reduce NHS costs, and create skilled jobs.
  • Zero carbon homes standard - Labour will introduce a zero carbon homes standard for new-build homes as soon as possible, prioritising affordable homes.
  • Tighten regulation of privately rented homes - Labour plans to tighten regulations for privately rented homes, preventing poorly insulated homes from being rented out.

Action on Transport:

  • New Clean Air Act - Labour plans to address illegal air quality by introducing a new Clean Air Act.
  • Public transport - Labour aims to expand public transport by bringing railways back into public ownership, capping fares, and supporting the creation of publicly run municipal bus companies focused on passengers rather than profit.
  • Rail electrification and expansion - Labour intends to deliver more rail electrification and expand the railway network across the whole country, including in Wales and the South West.
  • Complete HS2 High-Speed Rail Line - They will complete the HS2 high-speed rail line from London through Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester.
  • Free Bus Travel for Under 25s - To encourage greater use of public transport, Labour proposes introducing free bus travel for individuals under 25.
  • Promote ultra-low emission vehicles - They aim to position the UK at the forefront of the development, manufacture, and use of ultra-low emission vehicles by investing in low emission vehicles.

Action on Farming, Fishing, Habitats, and Wildlife Management:

  • Rework funds for farming and fishing - Labour plans to reconfigure funds for farming and fishing to support sustainable practices, smaller traders, local economies, and community benefits.
  • Responsibility for habitat conservation - They aim to embed and enhance in policy the responsibility for farmers to conserve, enhance, and create safe habitats for birds, insects, and other wild animals, while also encouraging the growth of wildflowers.

International policies:

  • Put the environment and human rights at the heart of foreign policy.
  • Maintain and extend environmental rights, standards, and protections in negotiations with the EU.
  • Implement the UN Sustainable Development Goals and report annually on performance.
  • Support climate mitigation and adaptation efforts in the Global South.
  • Use trade negotiations to boost market access for British environmental goods and services.
  • Combat the illegal wildlife trade and trophy hunting.
  • Divert UK aid away from fossil fuel projects towards renewable energy sources.
  • Promote support for low-carbon projects in the energy sector.
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The future of Labour

We have witnessed the evolution of the Labour Party from a movement rooted in the struggles of the working class to a modern political force striving for a greener and more sustainable future. As the Conservatives grapple with their own identity and search for ways to distinguish themselves to voters, Labour has the opportunity to seize the mantle of environmental stewardship. 

Under the leadership of Keir Starmer, the Labour Party is facing the challenge of defining itself for a new generation of voters. Starmer's approach has been marked by a cautious rebranding, as he seeks to distance the party from past controversies and present a more moderate image. 

What's particularly noteworthy is the shifting battleground of British politics towards environmental concerns, with Labour positioning itself as a steadfast advocate for green policies. While the Conservative Party, led by Rishi Sunak, has chosen to delay and even reverse certain climate targets, Labour remains resolute in its commitment to confront the challenges of climate change.

Labour envisions a future where the UK takes the lead in forging a low-carbon, digital economy, one that generates green employment opportunities and reverses the environmental degradation we've witnessed.

In the midst of this evolving political landscape, the battle for environmental leadership is shaping up to be a defining issue. Labour's dedication to a green future stands in stark contrast to the Conservative Party's hesitations and rollbacks, setting the stage for a compelling debate that will resonate with voters concerned about the future of our planet. The road to the 2024 general election is fraught with challenges, but Labour's commitment to the environment may prove to be its strongest asset in this critical moment.

What about Greenly?

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.

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