Corbyn's green plans: Not nearly as left wing as you might think

James Murray
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Corbyn's green plans: Not nearly as left wing as you might think

The Labour Party's draft manifesto offers plenty of encouragement for the green economy, but could Corbyn and co ever really deliver?

If an energy price cap is either 'Marxist' or the epitome of 'strong and stable' leadership, depending on where it originates, then there is no such equivocation for a programme of mass nationalisation, corporate tax hikes, and opaquely funded spending largesse. The reviews are in for the Labour Party's leaked manifesto and the mainstream business pages are not impressed. Its Marxism cubed, agit-prop masquerading as a manifesto, a wormhole back to the 1970s - and not the good 1970s of blue passports, grammar schools, and fox hunting, mind, but the bad 1970s of blackouts and strikes. "Hard left manifesto," trumpets The Times. "Corbyn's  fantasy land," blasts The Mail.

Herein lies the problem some environmentalists feared as soon as Corbyn seized the Labour Party leadership. Because what if on one of the defining issues of the age Labour's draft proposals are not dated ideological posturing? What if, on this topic at least, this is not unreconstructed socialism, but the kind of mature interaction between state, public, and private sector that should define modern centrism and is urgently needed to reshape our economy, bolster our competitiveness, and tackle existential environmental risks?

The question is worth asking, because while the talk of nationalisation and tax raids have dominated the headlines the energy and environment sections of Labour's draft manifesto is far more nuanced, far more ambitious, and far more plausible than you might think. After all, there is nothing fantastical or left wing about wanting to maintain a habitable biosphere.

That is not to say the document is perfect, because it is far from that. There is a gaping hole where support for zero emission vehicles should be, there is nothing on the North Sea and the carbon bubble, and where is the detail on how to mobilise investment in storage, smart grids, and the renewables capacity needed to meet Labour's goal of 60 per cent clean energy by 2030?

It's a draft and hopefully more information will emerge in the final version, but even if the Party fleshes out its vision the biggest over-arching concern remains. Labour's insistence the whole thing is fully costed appears to rest on some pretty punchy assumptions about the prospects for the UK economy and its tax take post-Brexit, not to mention the markets' willingness to countenance a further slowdown in deficit reduction.

However, beyond these flaws there is plenty green businesses should welcome. There are quite a few policies on display that simply do not merit the extreme left wing pigeon hole that Corbyn's many critics are attempting to consign the entire manifesto to.

For example, on energy efficiency, the pledge to make the upgrading of homes a national infrastructure priority funded through the Treasury is a proposal backed by those notorious Stalinists at energy industry trade body Energy UK. The target of upgrading four million homes during a parliament is the large scale national program the UK needs to meet its carbon targets and drive investment in the building industry. The proposal for zero per cent loans and stamp duty incentives is simply the financing scheme some Conservative Ministers would have liked to have seen introduced. The zero carbon home standards policy Labour is proposing looks pretty much the same as the one the Lib Dems worked on during the coalition years.

The promise of a National Investment Bank would effectively revive the idea of a government-backed Green Investment Bank, which a cross-party group of MPs wanted to stay in public hands, while the commitment to deliver "universal" superfast broadband  by 2022 is one any business would welcome. Similarly, the changing nature of the workplace and the acceleration of technological transformation makes a version of Labour's plans for life-long learning less of a partisan ploy and more of an economic necessity.

A Clean Air Act is only left wing if you think leaving our air dangerously toxic is right wing, and the commitment to CCS and nuclear, while vague, provides evidence Corbyn is capable of compromise occasionally. It also suggests that in some areas Labour would seek to build on, rather than torch, the last government's plans.

The promise to ban fracking provides a clear dividing line with the Conservatives, but if it is an inherently left-wing move why is avowed centrist Emmanuel Macron promising precisely the same policy in France? A moratorium on shale gas can be justified by stranded asset fears that should transcend the political spectrum - just ask some of the world's leading investors.

On Brexit, Labour's pledge to prioritise the UK's continued membership of the internal energy market and Euratom has widespread business backing.

In contrast, the promise of an energy bill price cap is far harder to defend. Just like the Conservatives' plan it looks anti-competitive, potentially unworkable, and out of step with the era of time-of-use tariffs that is surely coming. Similarly, the headline-grabbing nationalisation proposals look like an ideologically-motivated distraction from the serious business of building a modern economy (although any Brexiteer making this argument requires a long, hard look in the mirror first).

The plan to take rail operators back into public ownership has more to recommend it - it would happen gradually as leases expired, it has been shown to work on some lines, and it is not as if the rail system is delivering great value for money currently. But plans for regional state-owned energy firms is trying to solve a problem that numerous inquiries have concluded does not really exist. Is further disruption and complexity what the market needs at a time when the Big Six have now publicly accepted the need for decarbonisation and are embarked on challenging transformation programmes?

If more competition in the market is needed it would be simpler to encourage local authorities or community groups to take advantage of schemes like Licence Lite and start supplying energy. There is a good argument for emulating Germany's network of community energy firms, but it is unclear state ownership is required to do it.

Similarly, public ownership of energy networks may work well in some European states, but is National Grid really performing so badly that it is worth forking out £39bn to acquire it? It is wrong to suggest public ownership is inherently anti-competitive and a drag on innovation - Transport for London and its smart phone apps and hydrogen buses shows this need not be the case. But Labour needs to pick its battles. Full nationalisation of a grid that is the midst of a massive technological transformation risks becoming a major distraction, even if a debate on the levels of public and private involvement required to accelerate the low carbon transition is justified. After all, as Ed Miliband's former advisor Lord Stewart Wood noted on Twitter, the level of state ownership Corbyn is proposing is the norm in Europe.

The problem is that this intellectually stultifying election is strangling any attempt to have such a debate. The crucial questions posited by the economist Mariana Mazzucato about the crucial role of an active state and mission-led industrial strategy in a modern economy are no closer to being advanced. The wider question of what type of country we want to build post-Brexit stalks the political landscape seeking anyone who can deliver a response that extends beyond the words "strong" or "stable".

Labour's manifesto at least takes a swing at addressing some of these questions, but it cannot shake-off the fundamental weakness of the party's position - the deadweight that is Corbyn's subterranean leadership ratings and the party's lack of credibility on all issues economic creates too great a drag.

"You have to earn the right to play," they say in rugby circles, meaning you have to be willing to do the dirty, essential basics if you want to then demonstrate your wider abilities. In politics, that means looking like you actually want the top job, maintaining an air of polite authority, presenting costed plans and being able to answer basic questions on them, and making at least a passing attempt to convince the electorate you are not an extremist. In fairness, Theresa May does not score that highly against this simple checklist, but Corbyn, McDonnell, and their inner circle are so openly contemptuous of basic leadership requirements they don't even seem that bothered about the electoral landslide that is currently heading towards their party.

For all the merits of parts of the draft manifesto, the party leadership continues to cling to a caricature of traditional left wing thinking at a time when the old political spectrum is collapsing. When the right talks of social justice and state intervention it should be blindingly obvious the left needs to talk of commercial success and entrepreneurialism, alongside its traditional strengths. 

The risk for the green economy is that the important policies being proposed by Labour now risk being seen as part of a left wing wish list, a tax and spend frenzy of state intervention, rather than what they are, which is a mechanism for unleashing innovation, mobilising investment, and driving an economy wide transformation. Instead of presenting a credible challenge to the government to up its game, we now face the risk of a government that has proven itself capable of some pretty craven levels of cynicism and short termism turning bold climate action into a partisan dividing line.

There are two main tragedies of Corbynism. The first is the collapse of the Labour Party and the dominance of an ignominious branch of left-wing activism that appears to be defined as much by unbridled digital aggression and apologias for dictatorial regimes as it is any sense of social justice. The second is that Corbyn's staggering incompetence risks tarnishing some of the important policy thinking, especially on environmental issues, that the entire political class urgently needs to engage with. He risks not so much moving the Overton Window as cementing it shut. As the journalist Chris Deerin observed on Twitter yesterday:

Thankfully, the better ideas contained in Labour's manifesto will come again; automation and climate change mean they will have to. In fact, they could come as early as next week. There are good Conservative MPs who are quietly urging Downing Street to recognise the popularity of a bold green plan and deliver a manifesto that leaves the door open for such policies. The Greens and Lib Dems will continue to push for a much more thoughtful debate on these issues and look set to unveil 21st century manifestos that can not be so easily dismissed as a 1970s tribute act. Meanwhile, there are good people in Labour who understand that a credible leader could make bold climate policies a core part of an attractive pitch to a country that loves clean technologies.

It's just a crying shame Labour could not find a way to go into this election with a leadership capable of winning a hearing for the green policies the UK needs. Corbyn gets that action on climate change is popular and necessary, but sadly that is nowhere near enough. With the Conservative party split on the most important two issues of the era - climate action and Brexit - a strong opposition is essential to provide a counterweight to the ebullient voices on the hard right. The final tragedy of Corbynism is that such an opposition remains missing in action.

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