Ed Miliband once won plaudits from across Westminster for his ambitious approach to climate change - could re-engaging with the issue that once defined him help tackle his leadership woes?
I've always rather liked Ed Miliband. There, I said it. I know the default setting for much of the UK's media is to treat the Labour leader as a Wallace-shaped Piñata, but I've always regarded him as a fundamentally decent, genuinely engaging, if occasionally flawed politician.
These qualities were made abundantly clear during the two years Miliband spent as the UK's first Energy and Climate Change Secretary. Obviously, others' recollections of that period will be different, but having covered the then fledgling Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) my impression was of a young and ambitious Secretary of State who quickly ran up a pretty solid list of achievements. He successfully launched a department that consistently punched above its weight, put the historic Climate Change Act on a firm footing, kept climate action on the political agenda in the face of a global economic crisis, earned the grudging respect of the energy giants, played a crucial and positive role at the UN international climate summit in Copenhagen, and (while the current DECC ministerial team may dispute this) laid a good deal of the ground work for the clean energy policies the coalition has subsequently delivered - he may not have delivered them, but pay-as-you-save energy efficiency schemes, more support for renewable heat, and an overhaul of the energy market to prioritise clean energy were all being actively considered on Miliband's watch.
Inevitably, there were some bad mis-steps along the way. The failure to include a clear mechanism for cutting feed-in tariff incentives over time was a mistake that meant the scheme's initial success was always likely to give way to instability. Similarly, you can construct a convincing case for saying he should have gone further, faster on prioritising energy efficiency, mobilising clean energy investment, sorting out the UK's nuclear energy impasse, and challenging the dominance of the Big Six and coal power.
The coalition allegation that successive Labour Energy Ministers singularly failed to do enough to drive investment in new infrastructure is entirely justified, but it is unfair to lay the blame for that scandalous under-investment solely at the door of Miliband's DECC. He by no means had all the answers, but during a relatively brief stint in the job Miliband attempted to correct many of the weaknesses in the energy market that were allowed to emerge during the Blair-Brown years. Conservative MP's may allege that high energy bills are a result of "Miliband's green levies", but after four years in government they have chosen not to remove them, even if a political panic last year led to some cuts to energy efficiency levies.
Most of all though, Miliband's stint at DECC established him as a surprisingly impressive politician. I say surprisingly because all the flaws that have been mercilessly exposed by the right wing press were already present and (in)correct. He could lapse into policy wonkish language, he could butcher set-piece speeches, he never looked at ease in TV interviews or at photo ops. And yet, when taking questions from the public or the press he had a rare ability to actually listen to and engage with the people he was talking to. It sounds simple, but you would be surprised (or perhaps you wouldn't be) about how few senior politicians can do it. I recall one conference where Miliband followed a deadly dull keynote speech with a lengthy Q&A that left pretty much every one in the room singing his praises. One of the PR execs hosting the conference returned to the press room following Miliband's performance with the words, "you know what, I think I've got the strangest crush..."
Nowhere were Miliband's strengths more apparent than in the clarity he brought to action on climate change. He championed the Climate Change Act, understood fully the importance of the green economy, threw his weight behind the low carbon elements of Peter Mandelson's industrial policy, and realised climate change had to be framed less as risk and more as opportunity. As he repeatedly observed, "Martin Luther King used to say 'I have a dream', not 'I have a nightmare'." Miliband was also much tougher than he appeared in public - just ask the senior energy executives and journalists who crossed him. It is fair to say none of the environment correspondents who covered Miliband prior to 2010 would have tipped him as a future Prime Minister, but equally I'm not sure they'd be entirely surprised that he now has a shot at the job.
It was Miliband's passionate commitment to climate action, more than anything, which established him as a contender and animated the young activists who helped him seize the Labour leadership. As left wing commentator Sunny Hundal observed in a recent column "When I first wrote that Ed Miliband should be leader of the Labour party back in 2009, it was because he inspired me too. At a time when Labour was intellectually bankrupt and devoid of energy, he worked tirelessly and spoke passionately about climate change and the challenges it presented. His tireless work at Copenhagen generated the sort of admiration across party lines that is still very rare."
All of which sadly begs the question as to what has happened to that Ed Miliband? Why has that rare ability to engage with the public not translated into better leadership ratings? Where has 'Green Ed' gone?
Of course, Miliband's position is nowhere near as bad as an increasingly partisan press makes out. For all his woeful leadership ratings and his apparent inability to eat a bacon sandwich, civil war in the party has been carefully avoided, solid progress has been made since Labour's biggest electoral defeat in a generation, and the party is both marginally ahead in national polls and more comfortably ahead in key marginal polls. The election result remains on a knife edge, but it is entirely possible Miliband will either form the next government or deny David Cameron the majority he craves.
And yet, it is equally clear that something is awry. Much of the mud flung at Miliband may be unfairly personal, but some of the criticism is self-evidently justified. His anaemic leadership ratings are a constant drag on Labour's electoral prospects, the grumblings about the effectiveness of Miliband's office are too frequent not to have some credibility, and, most importantly, while there may have been improvements in recent months the opposition's messaging still appears too scattergun to deliver the required cut-through with voters.
All of which brings us back to the topic of 'Green Ed' and the mystery that is the Labour leader's reluctance to make action on climate change a more central part of his offer to the public. There was a useful reminder of his views on climate change earlier this year when Miliband seized on the government's sluggish response to the floods that hit much of southern England by reasserting his view that climate change is a national security issue and we are guilty of "sleepwalking into a climate crisis". And then... nothing.
Miliband has highlighted climate change and green industries in several of his conference speeches (although he reportedly forgot the climate section during one of his note-free performances), and he has authorised his impressive shadow energy, climate change, and environment teams to put forward some pretty bold policy proposals, including commitments to decarbonise the power sector by 2030 and a crucial pledge to accelerate the phase out of coal power. But at no point has he made Labour's evolving climate change and green economic strategies a central part of his offer. There has been no big set-piece speech on the environment - just a handful of attacks on the Conservative's often contradictory stance on climate change - and there has been a complete failure to back up the energy price freeze pledge with a similarly bold and specific commitment on clean energy.
This is strange, not least because it is hard to identify a down-side for the Labour party of making green growth and climate action a central part of Miliband's pitch to the country.
The upsides are obvious. Firstly, as Hundal points out, focusing on a topic he clearly cares about would inspire Labour's base (crucial in what is going to be a tight election) and may even inspire some wavering swing voters. Secondly, if you have a 'leadership' problem, talking seriously and passionately about one of the biggest issues the world faces can only help. Thirdly, it offers a route for Labour to win back, if not business backing, then at least respect. There are arguably only two areas where the CBI is closer to Labour's position than the Conservatives, on Europe and the green economy - Labour should be doing more to take advantage of that potential alliance. Sir Stuart Rose may be anything but a Labour cheerleader, but Miliband would be wise to heed his prediction that the party that is brave enough to "raise the green flag" before the next election will find it to be a vote-winner.
And then there are the political calculations. A bolder green strategy from Labour would help shore up the support of those environmentally-conscious ex Lib Dem voters who have switched their allegiance (it is notable that the Lib Dem's have revealed this week they are planning an ambitious-looking new Nature Bill in an attempt to win back those self-same voters). It may also help hold off the challenge to Labour's left from the Greens, who are polling at their highest level in years and could yet deny Labour votes that may prove crucial in a close election. Most of all though, an ambitious green pitch from Labour would make life very awkward for David Cameron as he battles to keep a lid on the bubbling conflict between his own environmentally-concious modernising tendency and the outright hostility to green issues demonstrated by so many of his backbenchers and cabinet colleagues.
Finally, and most importantly, there is the public, who according to poll after poll are broadly supportive of clean energy and the green economy and place huge value on the environment. As Rose observed: 'People get it'. It may not be the top issue with voters, but is an issue that matters to many of them and it can help define a candidate in a way that dry discussions about the deficit or GDP growth rates won't. There is a clear electoral upside for Miliband in trying to take ownership of the political response to climate change, as he once did when he first made an impression on the national stage.
The one downside is that pushing climate change up the agenda would almost inevitably invite attacks from Lynton Crosby over the potential for environmental legislation to push up bills and damage the economy. Every discredited bit of "evidence" and suspect energy price projection would be used to try and paint Miliband's desire to deliver more ambitious climate action as a luxury the UK can't afford. You can see why Labour may be nervous about opening up this front, but equally they must know that any move to attack Miliband on climate change only serves to remind voters about Cameron's public embrace of that husky. Voters aren't stupid, Miliband has to be confident that this is an argument he could win, particularly when Cameron is on record as accepting that action on climate change is critically important.
Moreover, let's be honest, the people that an ambitious green strategy would upset are never going to vote Labour. Ed Balls could promise to tear down every wind turbine and dish out a free sack of coal to every house with an Aga and they would still refuse to put a cross in the box next to their local Labour candidate.
An explicitly green economic strategy from the opposition would not only help Labour, it would also help the wider green economy. For those of us who are not Labour Party members a clearer commitment on climate change from Miliband would have the positive effect of forcing all the main parties to respond. The Lib Dems would have to up their game still further to cling onto their traditional position as the greenest of the main parties and the Tory leadership would be forced to finally stake out a clear and coherent position on one of the biggest challenges the world faces - something Cameron has been studiously avoiding for several years now.
What should Miliband do? Labour already has the bones of a solid green manifesto, it should now urgently strengthen it and then look to tie it explicitly to the Party's core messages. Miliband's "responsible capitalism" should become "green responsible capitalism", a million new homes could become a million green homes with better building standards, and industrial strategies should be laser focused at low carbon sectors such as green automotive and the circular economy. Policy commitments could be translated into more appealing voter offers. How about solar panels (or site-appropriate renewables) on every school and hospital? What about using the Green Investment Bank's proposed freedom to borrow to offer ultra-low interest loans to help everyone make their home warmer? Why not introduce legislation to ensure anyone living near a renewables project or investing in community renewables gets a rebate on their energy bills?
Most of all though, Miliband needs to talk about the topic that once animated and defined him. All of his best moments as leader of the opposition have come when he has led the debate on topics that he clearly cared about and where Cameron was in an awkward position. Climate change should be one of those topics. If your biggest problem is that people don't think of you as a leader, then the best thing to do is to get out there and demonstrably lead.
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