The Scottish Labour Party conference this weekend passed a motion from train drivers union ASLEF which strongly opposed the Workplace Parking Levy policy agreed between the SNP government and the Scottish Green Party. Speaking to the motion Kevin Lindsay shouted his way through a speech where outrage at the idea of train drivers starting work at 3.30am having to pay for a parking place competed with outrage against Abellio’s disastrous “running down” of rail services in Scotland to see which was the most outrageous.
In a calmer speech Colin Smyth MSP claimed that the policy was so bad that it made it harder for other climate change proposals to be accepted.
All this heat generated before the policy has been legislated for and before any local council has brought forward any proposal, which is what the policy will allow for. A power that councils in England have had since the last Labour Government gave them it.
The sight of a trade union leader of a powerful union like ASLEF proclaiming that he would not be able to negotiate a deal with the employer so they did not pass on any parking levy to his members, who have the ability to bring the country to a standstill, was not remarked upon. It only added to the rather absurd position that was being adopted.
Unions, and indeed the Labour Party itself, have argued for years that councils should have more fund raising powers to strengthen their ability to deliver services that are locally and democratically accountable. These additional powers could be tourist taxes, also now proposed by the Scottish Government, supermarket taxes, land and business taxes and, in my opinion, maybe, possibly, workplace parking levies.
Each specific proposal to use any such fund raising powers by any council would need to be assessed on its merits, its aims and risks and critically what the money raised would be used for.
The world, except Trump, recognises that there is a climate emergency now and that urgent steps are needed. School students in Scotland and across Europe have taken strike action demanding action to protect their future, and plan more.
These urgent steps include getting cars off the road – which would help to address the severe issues of air pollution as well as climate change.
These urgent steps could include a workplace parking levy such as that introduced by Nottingham, using the powers given to them by that Labour Government, where the money raised goes to extend public transport, specifically their tram system. The Nottingham scheme is not without its critics with the Council charging its own staff a percentage of their salary to use workplace car parking spaces.
However the Scottish policy has been criticised by all the other parties in the parliament and by many trade unions that see it simply as a tax on workers going to work. The ASLEF reaction, albeit in an over excited style in order to work the automatically anti-SNP audience, is typical, focussing on the impact on workers without considering the wider picture of local government funding policy and what urgent steps are needed to tackle climate change.
It is true that the Workplace Parking Levy powers as proposed are not perfect and as it stands it would be difficult to see councils deciding to use it. However to oppose out-of-hand the concept is another example of the failure of, in this case, the Labour Party and trade unions refusing to consider seriously the issue of climate change.
The only other motion which related to climate change to be discussed over the weekend of the conference was an emergency motion from GMB and Unite on the situation where the company that now owns Bifab have been priced out of contracts for the next round of major off-shore wind turbines. An example of what happens when the privatised energy sector is unrestrained by the kind of policies that the trade union proponents of a Just Transition are arguing for – public sector investment and control and ultimately nationalisation of the energy sector in order to ensure that there are jobs for current energy sector workers.
Hardly evidence that the party rank-and-file treat climate change seriously.
For a workplace levy policy to be credible councils should get more powers. These should include the power to regulate and fund bus services and ensure that bus and train services are integrated, that services run early in the morning and late at night in outlying and rural areas. They would need funded to invest in safe walking and cycling routes.
Investing in public transport is a fundamental part of a radical and effective response to climate change but unions ought to recognise and act on the fact that many low paid workers cannot afford to run a car and so better public transport services is an issue we should be fighting on to support those low paid workers and indeed this would be a critical part of a Just Transition policy as we move from a high carbon to a low carbon economy.
The struggle to stop climate change and transition from a high carbon to a low carbon economy, as agreed at the Paris talks, will require hard decisions and determined bargaining by trade unions to ensure that the transition is a Just Transition for workers, that politicians and employers make the right decisions in the interests of working people. But within the raft of policies needed there will not only be steps to encourage positive changes in investment, in infra-structure, in alternative transport options, but also disincentives to discourage behaviours that contribute to climate change, including car use. If Labour and trade unions oppose every climate change proposal because it might mean workers being charged or taxed a bit more then they will be seen to be delaying the urgent steps that are needed to tackle climate change – not climate change deniers but climate change delayers.
Labour has on this occasion missed an opportunity to take a lead. Rather than absolutely opposing the workplace parking levy they should have become its critical friend and pushed for the other additional steps that would be needed to make it merely one small item in a wider programme of investments, providing suitable alternative transport options for workers to reduce car use in our towns and cities.
Fortunately later on the same day Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn gave a barnstorming speech to conference laying out, within a vision of the better society we want to create, the call for a Green Industrial Revolution. He committed a future Labour government to investing in renewables and new industries and to target net zero emissions by 2050 or earlier.
At a fringe meeting organised by Stop Climate Chaos Scotland Scottish Labour Leader Richard Leonard fully endorsed Corbyn’s commitments.
Would that more Labour, and trade union, leaders, could demonstrate such vision, bravery and determination to tackle climate change and protect the future for workers.