School students across the UK and in many other countries will walk out again to demand action on climate change on Friday 24 May. Climate strike activist and Labour Party member Abel Harvie-Clark spoke to The Clarion about the movement.
How did you get involved?
I heard about the movement on social media, and started organising in my sixth form. After the first strike I talked to as many different people as I could and got together a physical meeting, which became an organising group for the North East, or mainly Tyne and Wear. We got in touch with the UK Student Climate Network online and later at meetings as well as actions in London.
Before the strike I was an inactive member of the Labour Party, but last year I got involved with the help of left-wing activists including someone involved in The Clarion. I’ve tried to raise these issues in my CLP, Newcastle East, but there is definite resistance, both to the issue itself and really to new people being involved.
The lack of energy to engage with the movement has been disappointing, with many in the Labour Party the sense of emergency really doesn’t seem to be there. They are still considering opening a new coal mine!
However the left locally is supportive and has helped. Labour Party socialists helped us set up the local climate strike structures too.
Just one comment about social media – I’m a bit cynical about it and I think face-to-face organising and meeting and getting out on the streets is key. But at the same time it’s obviously the case that social media has been essential to getting this off the ground and getting organised.
Why has this happened now? It’s particularly impressive at a time when there is not much else going on in terms of demonstrations and direct action.
The IPCC [UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] and the mobilisations around that last year changed a lot in terms of consciousness. There’s almost a sense of desperation but that turns into urgency – our future about to go up in flames.
I think Brexit is quite alienating for young people whereas this is something that people feel they can do something about. Yes, tackling climate change is harder, but the whole process and nature of Brexit is depressing – the mainstream of Remain is not radical, it’s Chuka Umunna, it’s Anna Soubry, it’s big business, whereas the climate change movement suggests a radical future and so in a strange way is more positive and optimistic. Stopping Brexit is necessary but not the solution to our wider problems; the limited nature of its as a demand makes it less appealing.
Climate justice suggests a radically different future, a youth-focused future, which no one else is talking about, not in the Corbyn movement. Corbyn is somewhat alienating – over Brexit, and a lack of focus on climate change. He makes positive comments but all it’s quite superficial. In contrast this is big, radical, loud and exciting. This is putting youth voices to the fore in a way that Labour isn’t – for instance in terms of a lack of real Young Labour activism.
Climate activism is really giving young people a voice. We’re standing up for ourselves, for youth, in a way no one else is.
Are there any obvious patterns to what sort of people are involved?
There’s a range of ages – there’s a sense of youth-wide solidarity, that everyone is welcome. Inevitably like quite a lot of activism it comes from a position of privilege – not the kids of the ruling class, but mainly people whose parents are quite collar, who have more education, sometimes with an activist backround. Young people with more educational privilege and so on are more likely to be involved. We want it to be for all youth – young people who aren’t in education, uni students, young workers, apprentices. The movement is majority female and there’s a strong presence from LGBT comrades.
How much of a cohesive movement is it? How much are people in touch with each other across the UK and in other countries? How do you organise?
In terms of organising locally, I can mainly speak for the NE and what I’ve picked up from a few others, mainly in London. As I said, social media is a big thing. There must be many hundreds of whatsapp chats set up to coordinate, also word of mouth, friendship groups getting together and making placards. There’s many more people involved than are plugged in on social media. I thought that our group in Newcastle was unusual but now actually strong local groups seem to be springing up all over, as people get themselves organised.
There’s some crossover with the movement around Extinction Rebellion, who have now set up a youth section. UKSCN has a big focus on being grassroots. There’s discussion about school groups, local areas, regional networks… We’ll set out general principles and encourage people to organise autonomously and take ownership within those. There are national events but as yet no national conferences; that might be a future step, but there maybe needs to be more more education and integration first.
Also, just to say that we must be one of the first cost effective campaign groups ever – zero funding and thousands on the streets. Contrast to some environmental NGOs with lots of dunding and resources and yet not producing the results.
What are the demands of the strike? Are there any demands it doesn’t raise but you think it should? And what about its wider politics?
We have four core demands:
1. Declare a Climate Emergency and implement a Green New Deal.
2. Be honest with the public about the severity of the climate crisis.
3. Reform the Education System to put the ecological crisis as an educational priority.
4. Lower the voting age to 16 to incorporate youth views.
Those are the general principles and there is filling out to do – the Green New Deal in particular is quite nebulous as a concept. There’s definitely a commitment to working on that – we need to work with unions and other campaign groups to flesh it out. It has to be worker-led – there’s a keen desire for unions to be at the heart of it, through public ownership, through workers’ ownership, not a market-based system. I want to make the GND as radical as possible, and push it in a left-wing, anticapitalist direction.
In my view it has to be the first steps in a complete and radical system overhaul – the way everything is set up at the moment and the functioning of capitalism rules out any radical climate policy. I have criticisms of XR, but I think the idea they have of the existing social contract being broken and so you have to challenge the system is valid.
Decentralisation is important. But at the same time we need organised political change from above as well as from below. We need centralised planning and investment in communities but with the aim of facilitating local democratic control.
I think there’s a prevalent feeling in the movement that parliamentary democracy as it exists is not set up to tackle climate change. The whole system operates on the basis of what’s good for business, even the Labour Party. Labour has certainly moved in the right direction but there’s still incredible the reluctance to pursue very basic policies like nationalising energy, it’s such a basic step… More broadly, what’s the alternative? It’s not Cuba. But we clear do need an alternative to the current sytem.
It’s interesting that you call your walkouts a strike. To what extent do the activists have consciousness about the workers’ movement?
Among my generation there is very little consciousness of the power of a labour movement, by which I mean not so much the Labour Party as a workers’ movement exercising workers’ power. Not even in terms of our teachers – in academies in particular there’s harsh pressure against trade unionism. Our action is like a strike in that we’re walking out and disrupting school rather than just having a demo on a weekend say. But in a way it’s more civil disobedience.
We would like to get to the point where workers take strike action over climate change, but I understand there are many barriers to that, including the fact that it’s illegal. Unions coordinating their action with ours would be a good step forward, and prior to that just more links and solidarity.
What’s the attitude of most student active in this movement to the Labour Party and to political parties in general?
The Labour Party has obviously been sympathetic; pushing for a climate emergency is good and as I say they seem to be shifting, but it’s all really quite unclear. When the youth strikers guest edited the Guardian there was some back and forth with Corbyn’s office about the need for Labour to have stronger policies. The party is not the enemy but not an ally, not a consistent one.
A few Green members are involved but the general sense is that the Green Party is not a particularly radical grassroots movement. Caroline Lucas has promoted good stuff, for instance the Green New Deal, but that doesn’t mean endorsing the Green Party as a structure or a movement.
What happens next and how would you like to see things develop?
Unfortunately, the issue is not going away any time soon. I don’t know if it will take some obviously bigger event to get more people to kick off. I think the movement has a strong future, particularly if we organise solid regional and local structures. It’s a movement that can be incredibly inclusive and inspiring for people.
I want to see student-worker solidarity develop. We’ll be having a strike day in September, as part of the global Earth Strike, at the same time as Labour Party conference. We would very much like workers to be involved.
We need to get the unions, in their structures but also workers in the workplace, and the Labour Party too, discussing transitional demands, about what an end to high-carbon industries and in their place a worker-led Green New Deal will look like.
A lot of what we need to do is basic spreading of information and educating, but clearly we also need different forms of activity to keep people engaged on the way. That’s essential because our goal is not immediate but it is urgent.
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