Green Issues and the Labour Party (in 1991)

Greening the Labour Movement

Dick Barry reviews some recent Labour movement publications on the Environment

Green Workplaces

Over the past two years or so the TUC has been actively involved in the development of environmental policy. Since the establishment of its Environment Action Group in 1989, a number of impressive reports have been published on various aspects of the environment.

The latest of these reports, Greening the Workplace, launched on 12 August, is subtitled ‘A TUC guide to environmental policies and issues at work’. It covers a wide range of issues, from green agreements, through environmental auditing and integrating the environment with health and safety to green rights at work and green pension funds.

Ten of the twelve sections contain supporting arguments as to why trade unions should be involved at all levels in environmental issues at work and raise a number of questions about the issues themselves, as well as providing valuable background information on key environmental areas and existing government legislation and regulations.

The guide is not intended to be read from cover to cover – it suffers from the kind of turgid prose to be found in official government documents – but it will prove invaluable as a do-it-yourself environment kit for trade unionists.

MSF and the Environment

MSF (Manufacturing, Science, Finance) is one of a small number of trade unions which are undertaking practical work on the environment. Action on the Environment, published in June, is a pack designed to help MSF members and other trade unionists to take up environmental issues at work.

It contains. among other things, a guide to environmental audits, which is more detailed than that included in the TUC guide, and a policy strategy document. There is also a model Environment Agreement which MSF will be asking companies to sign. The policy strategy document is limited in its coverage of issues; notable gaps include contamination of Britain’s beaches and bathing waters and the over-exploitation of the world’s natural resources. It is, nevertheless, a useful contribution to trade union thinking on the environment. The pack as a whole can be recommended to anyone interested in the work of the trade unions and is an example others could well follow.

Labour’s Green ‘Quango’

Labour’s Environment Protection Executive is the latest discussion paper to be published by the Fabian Society. Written by Ann Taylor, the Party’s spokesperson on the environment, it sets out fairly persuasive reasons as to why we need a single, national body to regulate environmental protection. The Department of the Environment cannot fulfil this role. What Britain needs, argues the paper, is a body independent of government which will press for the adoption of radical measures to protect and improve the environment.

It is proposed that the Environment Protection Executive should be answerable through an Environment Protection Commission to the government. The Commission itself would report directly to the Cabinet and through it to Parliament. Local input into the Executive would be via regional advisory forums and regional offices of the Executive.

Ann Taylor tells us that the next Labour government’s commitment to the environment will be guided by four principles: pollution prevention; the precautionary principle; the ‘polluter pays’ principle; and freedom of environmental information. The paper is a little over-confident in estimating the importance of freedom of information. It appears to suggest that people will become more environmentally conscious if they have access to understandable information. Education and knowledge are undoubtedly important, but there is little sign that people are eager to learn the importance of having a clean environment. Everyday experience shows that few people are bothered by dirty streets. And over the past year or so anti-social behaviour, such as eating and drinking on · public transport and depositing litter on the spot, has crept into everyday life. Fines and sanctions are necessary in the short term to remind people of their personal responsibility for the environment.

The paper contains an interesting table showing levels of public concern about problems associated with the environment. Comparing 1989 with 1986 it shows that chemical emissions into rivers and the sea concern 64% of the public, an increase of 10%; followed by sewage contamination of beaches and bathing waters (1989, 59%; 1986, 37%). In 1986 a negligible number of people were concerned about the destruction of the ozone layer. By 1989, 56% expressed concern. Other concerns which had negligible support in 1986, but featured strongly in 1989, were destruction of the rainforests, the greenhouse effect and the quality of drinking water. Surprisingly, public concern about radioactive waste fell from 62% in 1986 to 58% in 1989.

Undoubtedly, these figures reflect the extent to which the problems are raised by the media. Generally speaking, environmental problems are accorded serious treatment, particularly by television, so there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of these figures.

Unemployment, education and the health service will be key issues in the election campaign, but we should not underestimate how important having a clean and healthy environment is to people, even though they may be unclear about their own responsibility. In some constituencies it will feature more strongly than in others. The public may not be able to grasp fully the concept of an Environment Protection Executive, but if the next Labour government is to green Britain its role will be crucial.


This article appeared in September 1991, in Issue 25 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at