Ecotricity's decision to publicly back Labour was not taken lightly, but will other green businesses follow suit?
How do you define 'anti-business'? For the Tories, Ed Miliband's inability to remember the deficit and tax-and-spend instincts make Labour inherently hostile to business leaders. For Labour, the Tories penchant for hedge fund donors and tax avoiders results in policies that damage the majority of businesses who pay their fair share. For many business leaders, Labour's talk of higher taxes and price controls are inherently 'anti-business'. But equally, many executives regard Conservative talk of a politically motivated exit from the UK's largest market as anything but 'pro-business'.
The problem is they all have a point. The business community is as varied and volatile as any form of human community. Some businesses are inspiring innovators and engines of prosperity. Others are polluters and monopolists who do genuine harm to society. If this diversity wasn't confusing enough, some businesses occupy both extremes at the same time. It is possible to admire Google's track record of innovation and long term investment in clean energy, while condemning its tax practices.
Consequently, it is impossible to establish a universal definition of what is or isn't 'anti-business'. Some policies and political rhetoric do more harm to more businesses than others, but you'd be hard pressed to find a policy that is bad for each and every business. Some regulations damage businesses, but other regulations help create new markets and opportunities for commercial innovators. To take just one example, were vehicle emissions standards an 'anti-business' cost imposed on auto manufacturers, or a 'pro-business' means of stimulating demand for clean technology developers and protecting the health of the workforce for millions of other firms?
In the UK political context, the Conservatives are traditionally regarded as the party of business and are seen as being more likely to introduce 'pro-business' policies, as evidenced by David Cameron's announcement today of intriguing new plans for a Help to Grow scheme to support fast-growth firms and the latest pledge to cut 'red tape' (although how a party can get away with saying it has identified £10bn of legislative savings and then not say what they are is beyond me). But this is not a zero sum game. The Tories occupation of 'pro-business' territory does not mean they are pro every business, nor does it mean Labour are automatically anti every business. In an election year, people will be reluctant to inject nuance into this debate, but this is not an issue that allows simple polarisation and sensible business leaders and politicians should recognise that, not least because the public certainly does.
This is the debate that one of the UK's most high profile green business leaders, Ecotricity's Dale Vince, waded into this morning with the announcement the company is to donate £250,000 to Labour's election campaign.
My understanding is there was a lengthy debate at Ecotricity about whether to take this step. No consumer-facing company relishes getting involved in party politics, given the obvious potential for alienating customers. But eventually Vince concluded the Conservative's policies were so 'anti green business' that the company had little choice. As a spokesman explained, a Conservative victory and the enactment of the party's effective ban on new wind farms would make it extremely difficult for Ecotricity to keep its promise to customers to invest their bills in new wind turbines. In contrast, the company is satisfied Labour's support for renewables and decarbonisation, coupled with its plan to remain within the EU, means that from its perspective the party is 'pro-business'.
Will other green businesses, or even mainstream businesses who back decarbonisation and climate action, now reach a similar conclusion and publicly provide Miliband with some much-needed business backing? Or will they conclude the Tories' promise of tax cuts, deficit reduction, and conventional support for the business community outweighs concerns about Cameron's commitment to growing the green economy?
The reality is that while the Conservatives are broadly regarded as 'pro-business' there is mounting disquiet among green firms and investors that the supposed party of business is increasingly 'anti green business'.
Ecotricity and other onshore wind farm developers are most obviously in the firing line and have to now ask themselves whether they wish to get involved in the election and try and stop a party that would cause massive disruption to their medium to long term plans. But there are plenty of other clean tech sectors that harbour similar fears. Conservative ministers have signalled their opposition to solar farms, the Chancellor has previously sought to water down carbon targets and clean energy funding, the coalition deliberately downgraded support for circular economy policies, and there is scant evidence Conservative Central Office has much to say about energy efficiency, electric cars, or smart technologies. Meanwhile, climate sceptics periodically pipe up from the Tory backbenches to decry anything and everything that seeks to reduce emissions and drive green investments.
Again, the picture is complicated by the fact some Conservative MPs remain supportive of the green economy and powerful advocates of the need to decarbonise our economy. But it is equally clear that, for the first time in a generation, there are clear dividing lines on a host of green policy issues between the only two parties that have a hope of forming the next government.
Faced with this choice will more green business leaders emulate Ecotricity and declare a political allegiance? Plenty of business leaders have evidently concluded Miliband poses enough of a threat to the economy to pile in, will green business leaders conclude Cameron, or perhaps more pertinently, Osborne, May or Boris, poses enough of a threat to the green economy to get involved?
I have little doubt if Labour looked more convincingly like a government in waiting, was a few more points ahead in the polls, and could offer a handful more policies that were demonstrably 'pro-business' in a conventional sense green business leaders would be more vocal in their criticism of Cameron's slide away from his previous stance on environmental issues and his failure to prioritise the UK's climate and energy security. But currently support for Labour's green business policies tends to be balanced with continued concern about the party's wider business and economic policies.
With the election on a knife edge green businesses and investors will have no desire to alienate a Conservative Party that could yet secure another five years in power. And yet, for Ecotricity, with a business model based primarily on developing onshore wind farms, there is nothing left to lose from publicly siding with a party that will allow it to continue to invest. Others will have to undertake their own cost-benefit calculations and decide whether to follow Dale Vince and Lord Stuart Rose and join this election battle or else keep their head below the parapet and hope the green economy can adapt to the electoral fallout.
What is clear, is that despite what Tory spin doctors claim there are no clear-cut 'pro-business' and 'anti-business' candidates on offer at this election. It has always been more complicated than that, as green business leaders can certainly testify.
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