In the last in the series of pre-conference blogs, James Murray assesses whether Labour is ready to beef up its green economic strategy
Following Ed Miliband's conference speech on his vision for a 'One Nation Labour', a rumour did the rounds that he had accidentally omitted a section on the need for a 'One Planet' approach to environmental issues. Sources suggested an original draft of the speech contained a rousing pledge to lead the fight against climate change, but delivering the address without notes the leader of the opposition missed his cue, leaving a strange green hole in an otherwise well-received speech. This theory was given further credence the next day, when Miliband used a question and answer session with the conference floor to correct his oversight, repeatedly touting Labour's green commitment and contrasting it with coalition in-fighting over environmental policy.
This omission drew criticism from some green campaigners, who argued that if you can forget something as important as climate change it is clear that you do not really regard it as a priority. To them I would say: you try delivering the most important speech of your life without notes in front of thousands of people in the hall and millions more on the evening news, and see if you can remember every line. For all his painstakingly well-documented faults, Miliband's understanding of climate change risks and commitment to delivering a greener economy is easily as advanced as any frontline politician in the UK, as evidenced by his stint as the UK's first energy and climate change secretary. In a role that acted as a forerunner for his surprise victory as Labour leader, Miliband played a key role in establishing DECC as a department that punches well above its weight, proved an effective negotiator at the high-profile Copenhagen Summit and proved a surprisingly effective communicator when explaining the scale of climate change risks and the urgent need for decarbonisation.
However, green businesses and NGOs' frustration with the opposition's failure to either sketch out its own green economic strategy or prove more effective at holding the government to account over its watering down of green policy ambition is entirely understandable. Miliband and many of his colleagues may be committed in principle to a progressive green economic strategy, but it has not yet been established as a central component of Labour's proposition to the country. There have been several policy indications that have demonstrated the party's desire to lead on green issues, not least among them the challenge to the government to adopt a decarbonisation target for the power sector. But Miliband's failure to correct his conference oversight with a set piece speech on environmental issues in many ways crystallises the party's failure to properly define its green strategy.
In many ways this failure to take a more vocal stance on green issues is understandable. Elections are rarely, if ever, won or lost on environmental grounds and Labour faces a considerable challenge with the public on green topics that broadly mirrors the wider debate on the party's economic policies. Any attempt by Labour to position itself as the greenest of the three main parties begs questions over why it did not achieve more progress on decarbonisation during its 13 years of office, and how it plans to pay for green policies. Moreover, with Miliband knowing that no matter what he does he is going to be monstered by a right-wing press that behaves ever more like the media arm of the Conservative Party, there may well be an understandable reluctance to promote an issue that brings the Tory commentariat out in hives.
The party's strategists also know that if 2015 is to be a cost of living election, support for green policies that are (often erroneously) thought to increase energy bills could muddy the opposition's core message. It is notable that Conservative Central Office has already attempted to make political capital out of Labour's support for a decarbonisation target, using logic so tortuous as to border on the outright dishonest to argue that the opposition's green plans would lead to a massive increase in energy bills.
And yet, there are encouraging signs the Labour leadership's failure to engage more fully with environmental issues has been more a case of keeping its powder dry rather than a case of ducking the fight. Ed Balls' speech to the Green Alliance earlier this summer confirmed Labour would support EU renewable energy targets for 2030 if it wins the next election, while also revealing that the Shadow Chancellor is signed up to a green economic future in a way that the man he seeks to replace is not. Shadow Energy and Climate Change Secretary Caroline Flint and Shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh have proven two of the more assured opposition front bench performers in recent months, repeatedly highlighting the tensions at the heart of the coalition on a host of environmental policies.
Sources confirm green policies are likely to become more central to the party's proposition as the election approaches, with work underway on a raft of proposals designed to fuel green economic growth, help people improve efficiency and cut energy bills, and accelerate the decarbonisation of the UK. They may not enjoy the profile of the opposition's commitments on house-building, low pay, the NHS, the cost of living and fairer taxes, but there is an understanding that ambitious green policies could appeal to centre ground voters, while demonstrating the kind of party unity and modernising values the Conservatives are struggling to marshal.
It is easy to see why such an approach could appeal. Poll after poll shows high levels of public support for renewables and disquiet over issues such as fracking that the Conservatives increasingly tout as some kind of political virility test. A progressive stance on green issues is likely to play well with the disaffected Lib Dem voters who Labour will have to win over if it wants a majority at the next election. Business frustration with the coalition's vacillation on green issues offers Labour an opportunity to build ties with influential organisations such as the CBI, which is broadly in favour of more ambition on climate change. And staking out a leadership position for a united party on a topic as serious as climate change cannot hurt for a leader who is frequently (and unfairly) pilloried for not showing strong leadership.
Miliband may have had to endure months of abuse from the right-wing press over the summer, but Labour remains ahead in the polls and well aware that the Prime Minister can only secure the majority he craves next time around by reaching out to centre ground voters who were obviously unconvinced by him in 2010 and have seen their wages fall in real terms in the interim. Seizing the mantle of green leadership and making a convincing case for green growth can help Labour broaden its appeal to those voters, while also strengthening its base and highlighting the ill-discipline and reckless dinosaur tendencies of many Conservative backbenchers on environmental issues. No one in Labour circles would admit to it, but such an approach would also make forming a coalition with the Lib Dems an easier bridge to navigate if the electoral maths again results in a hung parliament.
However, Labour can only steal a genuine green march on the coalition parties if it urgently starts to explain how it would deliver a more successful green economic vision. The failure to offer a clearer dividing line on green policy and a harder hitting critique of the government's mixed messages risks leaving green voters disillusioned and centre ground voters unclear of where the party stands on this most crucial of issues. When it comes to the green economy, Miliband simply can't afford to fluff his lines in this year's speech.