Labour's green policy attacks resonate, but where is the alternative vision?

James Murray
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Labour's green agenda is slowly taking shape, but without more detail it risks fuelling investor uncertainty

The Labour Party appears to be having a grand old time in Liverpool this week, hurling grenades at the coalition government and the various "vested interests" it blames for the UK's myriad economic and social woes.

Unsurprisingly, energy and environmental issues have offered plenty of the most potent lines of attack, with shadow ministers listing the coalition's numerous u-turns and inconsistencies.

Shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh launched a stinging attack on the government's well-reported travails at Defra this morning, reviving memories of the department's deep budget cuts and humiliating u-turn on forestry sell-off, stoking fears about the impact of planning reforms on green spaces and making an audacious play to establish Labour as the "party of the countryside".

Writing as someone who grew up in true blue East Anglia, I can safely predict Norfolk and Suffolk will have disappeared into the North Sea before Labour dislodges the Tories as the "party of the countryside". But Creagh effectively highlighted the extent to which the coalition's ham-fisted environmental policies are rapidly alienating one of its core constituencies.

Shadow energy and climate change secretary Meg Hillier launched a similar attack on Chris Huhne's Department of Energy and Climate Change, echoing the complaints of many green business leaders in her condemnation of the department's inability to stop green policies being watered down. Her litany of green initiatives that have been scrapped or scaled back – the Green Investment Bank, research into biofuels, zero-carbon homes, charging points for electric cars, the Green Deal – made for depressing reading and served as a reminder that despite DECC's relatively good budget settlement and its ambitious electricity market reforms, plenty of aspects of the low-carbon economy are seeing government support diluted.

In contrast, Ed Miliband barely mentioned climate change and the environment in his crucial keynote address, but he still managed to offer considerable reassurance to green businesses while attacking the government for failing to provide these businesses with the support and rewards they deserve.

As is now de rigeur for these keynote speeches, Miliband assured us he believes "our environment and climate change is a crucial issue for our future". But this platitude was deployed mainly as a means of setting up an attack on the energy companies, with Miliband acknowledging there would be "upward pressure on energy prices" before insisting there was an urgent need to "call a rigged market what it is" and break the dominance of the Big Six energy companies.

Where the speech was more interesting was in Miliband's distinction between good businesses that invest in the future, contribute to society and plan for the long term, and bad businesses that strip assets, engage in predatory practices and are defined by short termism.

It is an idea BusinessGreen has long espoused – most notably in the charter we launched earlier this year outlining what it is that makes a green business – and as such it was encouraging to see Miliband make a similar argument in his attempt to position Labour as "pro business", but only when it comes to those progressive firms that deserve it. Or, as he put it: "Are you on the side of the wealth creators or the asset strippers? The producers or the predators? Producers train, invest, invent, sell... Predators are just interested in the fast buck, taking what they can out of the business."

It was disappointing that beyond a call for an economy built not on "low wages and high finance but on low carbon and high tech", Miliband failed to tie this concept of good businesses explicitly to the low-carbon economy. But it was possible to detect the foundations for a new pro green business left-of-centre philosophy, just as it was possible to see the outline of a green industrial policy in his criticism of the coalition's refusal to extend a loan to nuclear engineering firm Sheffield Forgemasters.

The problem for both Labour and those green businesses looking to make long-term investments is that while the party may be becoming increasingly adept at critiquing the coalition's green record, it is still yet to provide a compelling alternative vision that goes beyond vague hints that it would take a more interventionist stance on industrial issues and would attempt to drive the low-carbon economy up the political agenda.

Meanwhile, counter attacks from the Lib Dems and the Tories pointing out that major electricity market reforms are necessitated by the previous Labour government's ridiculously laissez faire approach to the energy market continue to resonate. As climate minister Greg Barker tweeted this afternoon: "Energy market is 'rigged', says Ed. What exactly did he do about it in two years as Energy Sec?"

Labour insiders argue that it is unfair to push for specific policy commitments when we are still years away from a general election, and the party's policy review is only half completed. It is a reasonable point, but in many ways the energy market and the low-carbon economy are a special case. The required investments are so long term in their nature that businesses need to see political consensus on carbon policy wherever possible, and where it is not possible they need to know what any in-coming government would do.

The row over the Big Six energy companies is a case in point. It is politically convenient for Labour to give them a kicking. But if we want these companies to make the long-term low-carbon investments the UK needs, then politicians cannot simply offer indistinct threats of "crackdowns" or "break-ups". Details matter in the energy market and investors need to see those details, otherwise they will simply chalk up the uncertainty as yet more policy risk and divert their capital elsewhere.

Miliband may have won over a few wavering voters with his pledge to break up the Big Six, but unless this pledge is followed quickly by a detailed plan outlining how he plans to do so, he may have inadvertently dealt a blow to energy investor confidence at a time when politicians should be doing everything they can to nurture that confidence.

The past few days have confirmed Labour has retained much of the pro-green business fervour that it finally managed to discover during its last few years in office, just as they have also confirmed that the opposition will continue to push the coalition to go further and faster on the low-carbon economy.

But until the party can more clearly define an alternative green vision, it will struggle to reassure green business voters that Labour can again be trusted with the low-carbon economy.

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