Anyone hoping to hear something about the Labour Party's commitment to achieving targets in the elimination of waste, zero emissions, and other urgently required environmental measures in the twenty-first century faced disappointment - and disbelief - at the Fabian Society's conference 'Celebrating the Centenary: 100 Years of the Labour Party'. At the afternoon plenary session, entitled 'Face the Future: Labour in the Twenty-first Century', and featuring speakers Oona King, Douglas Alexander, and Stephen Twigg, with Will Hutton as chairman, all the talk was of national identity, constitutional reform, the meritocratic society, full employment, trades unions, and human rights. Not only was there an absence of specific details pertaining to these classic, but highly generalised, political issues, but no reference whatsoever was made to the extremely thorny problem of the relationship between human beings, societies and resources - the environment - which underlies all other issues.
Oona King came closest, with her brief account of the Blair government's successes in foreign policy, claiming, along the way, that thanks to the efforts of Clare Short and Gordon Brown, 'Britain now has an astonishing influence in spreading the concept of sustainable livelihood internationally'. That means local communities having control over the means of production, she explains, failing to acknowledge the problems of persuading such local communities that they do not want to lay waste to the environment for the material comforts already enjoyed by the post-industrial world. Similarly, her pride in the establishment of targets to halve abject poverty globally by 2015 seemed hollow without mention of targets to ensure that the world is still a liveable place by then, with a decent standard of public health, for rich and poor alike.
Douglas Alexander, arguing that Britain can be 'the first successful multi-ethnic state of the twenty-first century', suggested that Labour's priority should be to 'define a new progressive nationalism for the next century.' In the wake of Darcus Howe's TV broadcast, 'White Tribe', he struck a resonant note with his view of Britishness as not necessarily a redundant concept if the multi-dimensional nature of that identity is understood and built on; but his lack of any reference to the huge investment of British identity in a national, physical landscape in decline seemed a glaring oversight.
Likewise, Stephen Twigg's demand for Labour to pursue its old ideals of 'a more just and meritocratic society' in the next century, predicated on voting reform, offered a definition of that ideal society in terms of 'opening up education and the professions' which sounded old-fashioned and irrelevant. The significant change will be an empowerment of individuals through local action - which can often be weakened by higher education and professional aspiration - to wrest control of their living environment and lives from the remote commercial and corporate forces which control society, its resources and value system.