Tomorrow Ed Balls will deliver his first major speech on the green economy - is Labour preparing to make a strong pitch for the green business vote in 2015?
The lobby hacks have agreed on their narrative and they are doing everything in their power to stick to it - Labour is divided, lacking strong leadership, without policies, and failing to cut through with the public. The right-wing press and much of the coalition will now run this narrative into the ground all the way through to 2015 in a transparent and at times desperate attempt to stop a Miliband premiership. The problem is that this narrative, like all political narratives, may be grounded in a degree of truth, but it is also grossly simplistic and in some cases downright misleading - as Ed Miliband's ambitious proposed reforms of the political system and union link today demonstrated.
Labour's poll lead may not be as impressive as its supporters would hope and it is still a long way from convincing the country it is ready to form the next government. But the opposition appears far more comfortable with its current direction than the media narrative suggests, while it also boasts a growing number of policies that draw clear dividing lines between itself and the coalition. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Labour's fast evolving stance on the green economy.
Let's take each charge in turn. Firstly, Labour may have done a good impression of a party divided over its union links in recent days, but on the question of climate change it is united. From trade union firebrands to New Labour survivors, the Party instinctively understands you can't have social justice without environmental justice. From Miliband down there is an acknowledgement that climate change is a serious threat and an awareness that green growth can help drive economic recovery.
The Lib Dems may remain the party most closely associated with environmentalism, but many of its members are furious at the leadership's failure to deliver more green policy progress while in government. Meanwhile, the green and climate sceptic wings of the Conservative Party are engaged in open warfare, meaning David Cameron is unwilling or unable to drive forward the green agenda that he once proudly supported. In contrast, the only aspect of environmental thinking that divides Labour is whether or not the green economy should represent a central part of the Party's pitch to the country or act as more of a second tier issue.
Secondly, the Labour leadership position on the green agenda is strengthening fast. Having cut his front bench teeth as the UK's first Energy and Climate Change Secretary Miliband fully understands the scale of the environmental threats we face and the urgent need to deliver a greener economy, even if he does not talk about the issues as much as some green groups would like. He appointed a Shadow Energy and Climate Change and Environment Secretaries with genuine political clout in Caroline Flint and Mary Creagh, and backed them with strong teams packed with ambitious MPs. Meanwhile, Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has recently stepped up attacks on the government for failing to do enough to accelerate green investment and will tomorrow set out his thinking on the growing importance of low carbon infrastructure in a speech hosted by the Green Alliance. There is optimism both inside and outside the party that the Labour leadership will make the green economy a key part of its proposition.
Which brings us neatly to the third myth - policy. The coalition is right to argue Labour does not have a fully costed manifesto in place just yet, but then again who does two years out from an election? Labour still has lots of work to do explaining how it would accelerate the pace of decarbonisation, but that does not mean there aren't green policy differences between the government and the opposition. Labour has already committed to introducing a decarbonisation target for the power sector if it wins the next election, while Flint has presented plans for a pool system in the energy market in an attempt to increase competition. There have also been strong hints the opposition would like to see more done to promote the Green Deal and other energy efficiency schemes, close the loophole that may allow coal power plants to keep operating deep into the 2020s, and invest more in flood protection and climate adaptation. Flint and others acknowledge there is work still to do, but it is clear the basis of a green economic industrial strategy is being forged.
Finally, critics may be justified in arguing that Labour is struggling to cut through with the public, and the party leadership is well aware that the next election is likely to be nail-bitingly close. But if difficulty getting your message through to the public is a cross that all oppositions have to bear, there is an expanding body of polling work showing that support for the green economy is a vote winner. Significant majorities of people want to see action on climate change, like and support clean technologies such as solar panels, electric cars, and even wind turbines, and most of all want to find ways that they can use less energy and cut their energy bills. Labour is aware the urgent need for new infrastructure makes it near impossible to promise lower energy costs, but serious thinkers near the top of the party are starting to see how a green economy narrative based on job creating investment, energy efficiency, and sweeping reform of the energy market could resonate with voters.
Of course, none of this is to suggest Labour has the green vote sewn up. The Party's green agenda faces two significant challenges, which neatly mirror the broader electoral problems Labour has to overcome - credibility and costs. Both sides of the coalition already have these green attack lines in place. It has been notable how DECC and Defra Ministers now rarely waste an opportunity to point out that the current urgent need for energy infrastructure investment is the direct result of underinvestment during Labour's 13 years in power or ask how Labour would fund a lower interest rate for the Green Deal, for example, without pushing up the deficit. These attack lines will resonate, not least because they raise entirely legitimate questions.
Moreover, as I have argued before, the government's green track record is in many ways better than it is given credit for. Yes, it is a long way short of what is required, but the Lib Dems and the green wing of the Conservative Party will go to the country in 2015 touting the formation of the Green Investment Bank and if all goes well over the next two years the mobilisation of investment through the Energy Bill, the Green Deal, and the Renewable Heat Incentive.
However, these challenges are anything but insurmountable for Labour. The last Labour government may have let energy policy drift during the first half of its stint in office, but during the second half it delivered the Climate Change Act, launched DECC, and kicked off the feed-in tariff. Equally, there are plenty of clever policies Labour could deliver that would help to boost the green economy without breaking the bank. It is my understanding loan guarantees, better product and building standards, measures to deliver still greater competitiveness in the energy market, and improved targeting of infrastructure spend at green projects are all being looked at closely as a means of driving low carbon investment without increasing the deficit. Throw in green ISAs, green quantative-easing, a major green home building programme, a green apprenticeship push, and a relaxation of borrowing rules for the Green Investment Bank and you'd have a pretty compelling economic strategy that would appeal to Labour's base and reach out to both disaffected Lib Dems and centre ground voters.
Because that is the big attraction of a green economic strategy for Labour - it is a no regrets move. Without being too cynical about the political landscape the only people such a strategy would irritate are never going to vote Labour. Miliband could promise free ice creams for all and a British winner of Wimbledon every year as part of his manifesto and he would still not win over those anti green voices who think climate change is a socialist plot. But in setting out a bolder green agenda he can excite his base, appeal to the centre, and position himself as leader willing to tackle big and important issues. He would also be able to integrate a new green industrial strategy with his "responsible capitalism" and "One Nation" tropes, while simultaneously using it to strengthen Labour's ties with a business community that is increasingly frustrated with the pace of progress on green policy and privately critical of Cameron's failure to stand up to the climate denying dinosaurs on his backbenches. As if that were not reason enough, there is also much political mischief to be had in touting an ambitious climate change strategy that would only serve to highlight the divisions in the Conservative Party on green issues.
Inevitably, none of this is yet guaranteed. Concerns remain that Labour could still duck this particular battle. Fears that the Tories will attack with accusations that Labour supports green technologies that push up energy bills could force the leadership to move climate change back down the agenda. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems, the green wing of the Conservative Party, and, of course, the Green Party are going to fight hard to position themselves as the real green leaders in British politics - and I'd argue each of them will be able to present a compelling case. Labour will have to put a lot more flesh on the bones of its low carbon strategy if it is to deliver a strong play for green business voters.
But my sense is that the party is increasingly willing to make that play. This is a fight Miliband will relish and one that he has long been committed to. I'd be very surprised if Labour does not use its evolving green economic strategy as a dividing line between itself and the Conservatives through to the next election. And regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum business leaders would be advised to keep a close eye on how Labour's green proposition is developing, not least because the polls continue to suggest they could be enacting their policies in less than two years. For that reason alone, Ed Balls addition tomorrow of another chapter in Labour's green economic narrative is worthy of close attention.
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