Understanding Labour’s green economy plans

James Murray argues Labour can afford to be bolder in its support of the green economy

04 Oct 2012, 00:05

Did Ed Miliband forget to include the "green bit" in his otherwise rapturously received conference speech?

That was the rumour apparently doing the rounds of the conference bars on Tuesday night as Labour members and media commentators digested a speech that may have given a turbo-charged boost to Miliband's political standing, but offer no such succour to green businesses.

I have it on pretty good authority that some strong words on Labour's support for the green economy were included in a draft of the speech, meaning that either they were pulled or Miliband did indeed forget to mention them. But regardless of the cause of the noticeable omission, green campaigners were left a mite grumpy on Tuesday night as they took to Twitter to ask whether the environment had a place in Labour's bold "One Nation" vision.

Thankfully, their ill-temper did not last long. Less than 24 hours later Miliband used a wide-ranging question and answer session to repeatedly stress how green issues were "absolutely central" to his One Nation philosophy. In comments that would have warmed the heart of party activists and green campaigners alike he stressed his commitment to tackling climate change, slammed the government for its ever-shifting stance on green issues, and hinted that he would take a more ambitious approach to microgeneration incentives and sustainable aviation policy.

It was an impressive rescue job and, while it would have gained more media traction had the same sentiments been included in the keynote speech, it once again reassured green businesses that as Prime Minister Miliband would look to support the low carbon economy. Add impressive speeches from Caroline Flint and Mary Creagh on green growth, numerous fringe debates on the low carbon economic opportunity, and Ed Balls' clear commitment to supporting green infrastructure such as high speed rail, renewable energy capacity, and broadband connectivity and there was a strong green growth narrative running through this year's Labour conference.

After the first two weeks of the conference season it is clear that both the Lib Dems and Labour will look to go into the next election as a significantly greener alternative to the Conservatives. This is good news for green businesses and investors in that it will drive the issue up the political agenda and puts significant pressure on David Cameron to face down climate sceptic critics in his own party and re-commit to himself to the green agenda or risk being seen to ditch his modernisation strategy altogether.

However, while it is clear the Lib Dems will position themselves as the architects of the better aspects of the coalition's green record and a valuable brake against Tory wrecking tactics, it is still much less clear how Labour will present its own green growth plans.

In many ways this is entirely understandable; there is no onus on Labour to spell out detailed policies at this stage in the electoral cycle and it would be insane to do so. But at the same time, incidents such as Miliband's apparent memory lapse and Balls' conflating of necessary low carbon infrastructure and much more contentious high carbon infrastructure such as roads and airports risk creating the impression that green growth is not a genuinely top priority for the Party's leadership.

The word is that the precise role and status of the green economy in Labour's positioning over the next few years is still very much up for grabs. The shadow DECC and Defra teams are pushing hard for green growth to be a key component of Labour's over-arching narrative, while policy supremo John Cruddas is said to "get it", and influential left-leaning commentators such as Sunny Hundal and Will Straw are similarly advocating a more vocal stance on environmental issues. Unfortunately, they are having to push against some of the short-term thinking that saw Labour deliver such a mixed record on energy and (to a lesser extent) environmental policy during its 13 years in office.

Meanwhile, at the more detailed policy level a lot of discussion is going on about how to turn Labour's vague commitment to a green industrial policy into tangible manifesto commitments. There were plenty of hints over the past week about how this thinking is evolving for those listening closely: Flint's pledge to scrap Ofgem and promote collective purchasing, Creagh's promise to raise recycling targets, Balls' demands for a more stable and predictable policy environment for renewable energy and other key infrastructure projects, not to mention Miliband's recent commitment to a 2030 decarbonisation target for the electricity sector, his scepticism on airport expansion, and his regret at the pace of government cuts to feed-in tariff incentives. The rough outline of a centre-left green economic policy is gradually emerging.

However, while this work continues it is clear that Labour can afford to be bolder on the green economy without necessarily revealing its best new low carbon policy ideas. As Nick Clegg has already calculated there are no votes to be lost in the centre or on the left by being more ambitious on environmental issues - and there could be a fair few to win.

Moreover, for a Labour opposition there is the opportunity to make a lot of mischief in highlighting the chasm between the environmentally progressive Lib Dem's and a Conservative Party that has just installed an alleged climate sceptic as Environment Secretary. Imagine the pressure that could be applied to Osborne if Labour joined the Lib Dems in demanding that the Green Investment Bank be allowed to borrow or decided to make a major issue of Miliband's new commitment to decarbonising the power sector by 2030.

Having covered Miliband's early cabinet career as the UK's first Energy and Climate Change Secretary I have no doubt that he is a passionate supporter of the green economy and is prepared to take bold steps to drive green growth. But if the Labour leader wants to build on the success of this week's attempts to make him seem prime ministerial then he needs to be more vocal still about how the party would tackle the UK's most existential long term challenge.

Green collective purchasing

One of the more interesting aspects of the Labour conference was Caroline Flint's launch of the Party's new collective purchasing "SwitchTogether" campaign.

The proposal unites two models that are popular overseas but have strangely always struggled to take off in the UK. Namely, households or businesses teaming up to negotiate cheaper energy bills through collective purchasing and centre-left political parties doubling up as community organisers, even when they are not in office.

As Flint argued in an impressive speech delivered without notes (the ability to memorise a script is fast-becoming an essential part of any politician's arsenal), "Labour may not run the country but we can help you cut your bills today".

It is a good idea and I really hope it enjoys some success. The government has already taken steps to support a handful of collective purchasing pilots, including the launch of a flagship scheme in Cornwall, but the more groups that are working to promote this concept the better.

However, I also hope that "SwitchTogether" can act as a model which Labour can adapt to deliver green progress.

Flint's office told me that the initiative would be open to all energy suppliers and it hoped to get green energy specialists involved, but it is clear that the main focus of both this and other collective purchasing schemes is on driving down the cost of normal energy tariffs, not promoting green tariffs.

So, if I may be as so bold as to throw a couple of ideas into the mix of Labour's on-going policy review, could we see a commitment to offer a green collective purchasing programme alongside any standard collective purchasing scheme. And, more promising still, could we also see Labour's new found community-organising zeal applied to accelerating the already fast-growing trend for community-owned and funded renewable energy projects.

Imagine the impact if the Labour members who Flint implored to "knock on doors, deliver leaflets, organise community meetings, make the calls and the tweets" to encourage collective purchasing were also harnessed to promote the collective ownership of community solar arrays, wind turbines, and biomass boilers. Is there a better green energy policy for promoting "One Nation Labour" values than that?

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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray

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