Labour has not done nearly enough to win over the business community, but it still holds out the promise of stronger green investment
Taken at face value there is a lot in the Labour pitch to appeal to both green businesses and those progressive corporations that want to see the UK build a greener and more competitive economy. If the party does form the next government and delivers on its energy and environment manifesto promises then it will comfortably take the "greenest government ever" mantle from the current coalition, building on its clean energy successes while accelerating progress in some of the key areas where the Conservative-led administration has not gone far enough.
The green package put forward by the opposition is not perfect, but the promise of power sector decarbonisation, a beefed up Green Investment Bank, a significantly strengthened energy efficiency strategy, and a renewed focus on the natural world and biodiversity protection demonstrates how the party has embraced the economic and environmental case for green investment. This vision has also been packaged in a way that suggests Labour now understands the appeal of green policies to centrist voters. It is highly likely the party's buffed up green credentials have played a role in Labour's little acknowledged but remarkable transformation from the government that was roundly defeated under Gordon Brown to the opposition that, in the face of a near-monolithically hostile print media, is still in the running at this late stage.
Significantly, Labour's green policies have been backed by pretty unstinting support from across the party. Ed Miliband's instinctive understanding of the importance of the green economy has been long-standing and well-documented. But what has been as important is the extent to which leading figures, such as Ed Balls and Chuka Ummuna, who were once pretty quiet on the concept of climate action, have made it clear that they support this agenda. Throw in a generation of young Labour MPs who see green industry and climate justice as absolutely core to modern social democracy and the old party of coal miners and carbon intensive industry looks greener than at any point in its history.
Even more significantly given the state of the polls, Labour's green package is one of the few areas where it should be easy to make common cause with the Lib Dems, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Greens, if the parliamentary maths demands it. In fact, where there are differences on the centre-left over environmental policy it is likely a Labour minority administration or coalition would find itself under pressure to be more rather than less ambitious.
So where's the catch? Why haven't more green businesses, both publicly and privately, followed Ecotricity's Dale Vince in endorsing the idea of a Miliband premiership?
Labour deserves more credit than it has been getting for being so competitive at this election, but the same concerns over the party's economic record and judgement that have undermined its campaign and blocked its route to a majority have bled into any consideration of its environmental offer.
Miliband's speech on capitalism's 'predators' and 'producers' that fuelled the belief the party had become 'anti-business' was never as controversial as it was made out to be by the spin operation from the Conservative/Murdochian media wing, but Labour made a grave strategic error in failing to reach out to the 'producers' who embody progressive capitalism. The attack on businesses' weaknesses should have been more than matched by equally effusive praise for businesses' strengths. What praise there was never cut through and the green and responsible businesses that may have had some sympathy for Miliband's analysis were never harnessed. Consequently, the reputation of Miliband's Labour as a party that never met a corporate tax or business regulation that it didn't like was cemented. Similarly, the energy price 'freeze'/'cap' may have played well on the doorstep, but it further fuelled the perception of Labour as overly statist and anti-market.
Many green businesses and entrepreneurs have found themselves in the awkward position of being broadly supportive of Labour's green industrial policy (and deeply sceptical about the Conservative's mixed messages on the environment and reckless gamble on EU membership) while seeing this support tempered by nagging doubts about whether Labour truly understands how business works. There is something of an injustice here, given there are plenty of high profile Tories who similarly have no real experience of the business world and have little understanding of how capitalism needs to transform itself if it is to continue to prosper, but that is the centre-left's cross to bear. If Miliband does fall short, his failure to address these legitimate concerns and convince the public that he has a compelling vision that can tackle the deficit and improve lives through business led innovation, ingenuity and investment will be one of the major reasons.
However, the sad reality is that polling day is not a seamless exercise in electing a dream government, it is a messy 24 hours of compromise and hard choices. In a largely dispiriting and narrow campaign none of the parties have done nearly enough to explain how they would respond to the complex climate-related challenges that will only intensify during the next parliament. How will the next government tackle the carbon bubble implications of UK fracking and North Sea oil and gas expansion? Where will it set the next round of carbon targets? How much money will it make available for clean energy projects post-2020? How will it make the UK more climate resilient? Where will it stand on divestment? How will it ensure our leading businesses are ready for higher carbon prices and ever more competitive clean technologies? How will it deliver UK clean tech firms capable of holding their own on the global stage with the Teslas and Apples and Yinglis of this world?
No one has so much as attempted to answer these questions, but by putting forward a relatively clear cut decarbonisation programme Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP and Greens have at least created the impression they know these questions exist. In contrast, the Conservative campaign has created the impression the party is barely aware of these questions and wishes they would just disappear.
As I argued at the start of this series of blog posts the impact of policies and political machinations on green business and technology is too often overstated. But the fact remains the biggest policy threat to the green economy at this election comes from the plausible scenario whereby voices from the right of British politics who are deeply sceptical about the case for decarbonisation become a dominant force in the next government. Rather than pushing these voices to the margins David Cameron has given them succour with a Tory energy and environment strategy that throws the wind energy industry under a bus and seeks to fudge too many of the big issues the UK's green economy faces.
That is why, for all the deep-seated concerns about Labour's economic credibility, many within the green economy will be hoping that whatever the precise outcome of the election the next government has a mandate to sideline those who would deprioritise green industries and ensure the under-reported success story that is the UK's green economy continues to go from strength to strength.
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