Does anyone deserve the green business vote?

James S Murray
Credit: ITV/PA Wire

Credit: ITV/PA Wire

The one upside to this miserable election has been the clear mandate for the net zero transition, but with all parties promising to bolder climate action who should green business types vote for?

Who to vote for? It is the most fundamental question in any democracy. The simplest, and yet most agonisingly complex question there is.

An election is not a referendum on a single issue. Admittedly, as we've found to our cost, even a referendum on a single issue is not really a referendum on a single issue. But an election layers complexity upon complexity. Only the most unthinking political tribalist would happily endorse every component of a Party's manifesto, and if the last few years have taught us anything it is that such hyper-partisanship is firmly Part Of The Problem. For everyone else, any election is a labyrinth of trade-offs and priority lists, a moral maze of compromises and imperfect, conflicted choices.

But given that caveat, who should those who regard the environment, the climate crisis, and the green economy as their top priorities reward with their vote?

Let's get the easy part out of the way first. If you live in Brighton Pavilion or the handful of Green Party target seats, such as Bristol West and Isle of Wight, then there is a compelling case to vote Green.

That is not to say the Green manifesto is perfect - far from it. The net zero by 2030 target date is completely unfeasible without a level of government intervention that would risk torching public support for decarbonisation; the ideological opposition to nuclear power remains, in my view, counterproductive; and the scale of the borrowing splurge required to deliver a £100bn a year Green New Deal would raise concerned eyebrows in boardrooms everywhere.

But Caroline Lucas remains one of a vanishingly small band of politicians to have emerged from the past few years with her reputation enhanced. Smart, articulate, principled, and empathetic, she is the best leader the Labour Party never had. You don't have to agree with every one of the Party's policies to recognise the importance of the Greens building a parliamentary platform from which to make the moral and economic case for much bolder climate action.

Unfortunately, outside of those two or three seats things get very complicated, very quickly.

Net zero mandate

The one bit of extremely good overarching news is that no matter what happens, the next government will have a mandate to build a net zero emission economy by 2050 at the latest, to deliver the full decarbonisation of one of the world's most influential economies within 30 years. The policy programmes put forward by the main parties differ in their ambition, emphasis, and detail, but they all mark a significant improvement on the current green policy landscape and promise to provide a major boost to the green economy and the wider climate agenda over the next five years and beyond. Throughout the turbulent past four years, the crucial cross-party political consensus on the need for climate action has largely held, even as the demands for more action have got louder and the accompanying culture war has intensified.

But if the commitment to net zero provides a welcome baseline, there are major differences between the main parties as to how they propose to deliver on the target. Given these differences, who then to vote for?

For me, the Lib Dems offer the most compelling manifesto for the green economy. Most experts would agree the 2045 net zero target date is both ambitious and achievable, but crucially there is also a detailed £100bn plan for meeting the goal that centres on urgent action over the next decade. There is a willingness to borrow to invest to go alongside Leader Jo Swinson's genuine apology for the Party's involvement in the past decade's self-defeating austerity policies. That funding would enable massive home retro-fitting programmes, the reinstatement of the Green Investment Bank that was so short-sightedly privatised by the Tories, a huge surge in renewables and EV infrastructure development, and increased clean tech R&D. Add in tree-planting, important climate governance reforms in Whitehall and corporate boardrooms, and the promise of an environmental duty of care law and you end up with a programme that could drastically accelerate decarbonisation efforts without spooking markets or alienating the public.

Similarly, the SNP and Plaid have both put forward net zero policy platforms that combine a mix of bold ambition and real world pragmatism, even if there are some obvious blind spots on oil and gas and farming reform, respectively.

Johnson v Corbyn

The problem is that the UK's first past the post electoral system means whoever you vote for you are helping to provide a path to Number 10 for either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn. And it is the two big parties that are putting forward the manifestos that raise the biggest alarm bells from an environmental perspective, albeit in very different ways.

Labour's manifesto is by some distance the greenest policy package ever put forward by a major political party. As such, there is a huge amount to like in its Green New Deal. Like the Lib Dem and Greens plans, it is largely commensurate to the scale of the climate crisis. It promises massive investment in a raft of critical areas, such as onshore renewables, domestic energy efficiency, electric vehicle infrastructure, and tree-planting. If there are some gaps in terms of commercial energy efficiency, heavy industry, and aviation, Labour is as strong on green skills, manufacturing, and public transport as you'd expect from what is now an unapologetically socialist party. Measures such as the promise to electrify England's bus fleet, build a fleet of EV factories, or retrofit every home to the highest green standards would demonstrably improve lives and communities while delivering a massive economic stimulus.

Perhaps best of all, whatever happens on Thursday here is the sight of a major political party fully internalising the scale of the transformation the net zero transition requires and acting accordingly. They may not have picked up much media traction, but Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell's plans to redefine the remit of the Treasury in pursuit of truly sustainable development suggest Whitehall's chronic short-termism could yet be tackled. You may have concerns about Corbynism - personally I've got more reservations than Airbnb - but the movement has embedded a real commitment to climate action deep in Labour's DNA.

As such, it is easy to see how Friends of the Earth this weekend deemed the Labour offering the greenest manifesto, just as it is easy to understand why many environmentally-minded voters will be backing Labour this Thursday, either directly or through tactical votes.

And yet, there are legitimate reasons to fear Labour's well-intentioned climate push could prove counter-productive. As a Conservative, renowned energy analyst Michael Liebreich makes no secret of the fact he has a dog in this fight, but his fiercely critical assessment of Labour's green spending plans last week did serve to highlight how the sheer scale of the fiscal bonanza and the likely under-estimates of the costs involved in decarbonising whole sectors could spook the public and markets alike.

Personally, I'm more relaxed about Labour's green spending plans than more mainstream business analysts. There is a credible breakdown showing how Labour is planning to move government expenditure as a proportion of GDP to a level that is comparable with many of our European neighbours. Venezuela it ain't. Moreover, Labour's supporters will argue, quite rightly, that its £250bn Green Transformation Fund is very much in the ballpark we need if we are to deliver deep decarbonisation within three decades. Borrowing at low rates to deliver the low carbon infrastructure we so desperately need and rebuild the public sphere after a gruelling decade has a lot to recommend it.

Yes, some of Labour's costings should probably be taken with a gritting lorry full of salt, but it is election time and optimistic guesstimates about future economic performance now come with the territory. If any Conservatives want to question Labour's maths, then the opposition has a bus to sell them with '£350m a week' emblazoned on the side.  

Nationalise everything

The bigger concern is whether Labour can pull off such an ambitious green agenda - and crucially keep those interest rates down - while simultaneously delivering a hugely controversial and wide-ranging nationalisation programme. It is hard to escape the impression that the quid pro quo for getting more old school unions to back deep decarbonisation has been a promise to nationalise everything that is nailed down. There may be a case for the state to play a more proactive role in our major infrastructure given it seems to work OK on the continent, but it is hard to see how the level of disruption that would inevitably result from Labour's programme will do anything other than distract from the need to mobilise low carbon investment. Corbynomics has been subject to more than its fair share of unjustified scare stories, but there are also legitimate reasons why investor confidence will be very fragile if McDonnell makes it to Number 11. Like so much of Labour's agenda, the Party's green plans get a huge amount right, but then fuel, rather than diffuse, voter concerns by over-reaching at the last.

In contrast, the problem with the Tories' green plans come not from a surfeit of ambition, but a worrying deficit.

Again, there is a huge amount to like in the Conservative plans and the Party deserves a lot of credit for its central role in delivering the deepest emissions cuts of any major economy over the past decade. Yes, the Lib Dems and Labour's Ed Miliband had a role to play, but Conservative-led governments drove the coal phase out, helped engineer the offshore wind boom, mobilised a major increase in clean tech R&D funding, adopted a world-leading net zero target, and secured co-hosting rights for the critical COP26 UN Summit. It is a measure of the cowardice at the heart of Johnson's safety-first campaign that he would rather watch an ice sculpture melt under the studio lights than defend his Party's record.

The Conservative manifesto promises to turbocharge action on all these fronts and more besides. There's an upgrading of offshore wind targets, a much needed increase in funding to upgrade fuel poor homes, really important farming subsidy reforms to incentivise greener land use, continued investment in EV infrastructure, funding for business energy efficiency measures, yet more tree-planting, and a doubling of clean tech R&D spending, all wrapped up in some characteristically upbeat Johnsonian techno-optimism. If the polls are right and the Conservatives are on track for a majority, then the green economy can expect a hatful of supportive new policies as the government looks to bring the UK back on to a net zero emission decarbonisation trajectory.

Emergency response?

The problem is for all the welcome talk of a 'climate emergency' from Conservative Ministers, their manifesto contains some obvious holes and decidedly under-powered pledges, which, to borrow Johnson's, historical condemnation of wind farms, could not "blow the skin off a rice pudding".

For example, there is nothing on cost effective onshore renewables, no firm commitment to accelerating road transport decarbonisation, nothing on how to incentivise energy efficiency upgrades for the vast majority of households, and very little on rail, public transport, and aviation.

Even where the Conservatives have taken steps to strengthen their policy platform they pale in comparison to the main opposition parties. For example, the Tories want 30 million trees a year, every one welcome of course; but the Lib Dems want 60 million and Labour are pledging to deliver two billion new trees by 2040. Similarly, the Conservatives promised £6.3bn to support upgrades to fuel poor homes over the course of the next decade, but Labour and the Lib Dems are promising around £6bn a year for domestic energy efficiency.

Green Tories' response to all this is that theirs is a more measured, pragmatic, and achievable approach, enabling decarbonisation without pushing up costs or alienating the public. The potential is there, they argue, to really accelerate efforts in the 2030s when their clean tech R&D spend starts to pay off. It is a legitimate argument, but it is undermined by three important realities. Firstly, neither the Conservative leadership nor the manifesto fully explains that this is the plan, leaving themselves wriggle room for many more years of incremental decarbonisation beyond the next parliament. Secondly, there is a middle path between Labour's fiscal largesse and the Party's unwillingness to take even modest steps to improve the rate of domestic energy efficiency upgrades for the vast majority of households or the failure to do anything meaningful to enable the development of the lowest cost form of new clean power generation. Third, Conservative Ministers accept there is a climate emergency - that surely justifies an emergency response? This ain't it.

Faced with these competing manifestos the obvious conclusion is that from a narrow policy perspective the best outcome for climate hawks would be another hung parliament, where the Lib Dems and SNP temper the nationalising instincts in Labour's Green New Deal or - and this seems less likely given their recent animus - make a massive ramping up of short term climate ambition a pre-requisite for backing a Conservative minority government.

Character matters

The problem with this analysis is it is impossible to separate environmental policy from the two topics that have dominated this surprisingly room temperature election campaign: Brexit and the character of the two candidates to be Prime Minister.

The UK's next Prime Minister could well be a man who is not, apparently, a racist, he just leads a party credibly accused of institutional racism that takes months to determine whether blatantly racist statements from some of its members are, in fact, racist. He also has such a long and ignominious track record of fraternising with actual terrorist-backing groups that the litany of dubious associations is already priced in for most voters. Alternatively, the next Prime Minister will be a man who is not, apparently, a racist, he just has a long record of writing racist things and neither apologising for them nor recognising that there is anything wrong with such statements in the first place. He also leads a party that is not exactly immune to blatantly racist members itself and he boasts such a long and ignominious track record of lying about topics large and small that when he is asked about trust on the campaign trail, audiences of all political persuasions guffaw with laughter. This is not a healthy place for a democracy to find itself.

The pretty much unprecedented unpopularity of the two leaders matters, because if they are to drive the UK into the new net zero era then they will need exceptional leadership skills. They will have to persuade and cajole people to not just accept drastic changes in the way the economy operates, but to actively engage in the green industrial revolution. They will need to reach out beyond their political tribes and build new coalitions that unite young and old, public and private sector, and rich and poor. Suffice to say, neither Boris Johnson nor Jeremy Corbyn have demonstrated such a skill-set to date.

And then there is Brexit. The detail of Brexit has barely featured in this election, but it looms over everything like the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future.

I remain optimistic the Tory conversion to the net zero cause is genuine and the Party will never emulate the US Republicans in pursuing openly pollutocratic policies, not least because the public would never accept it. But in seeking a 'mandate' for what remains an extremely hard Brexit the government is leaving the door open for either a no deal Brexit or a deal that enables it to drastically water down environmental policies. It is an open secret that some Conservatives, including some Cabinet Ministers and major funders, would love to smash through this door and deregulate as much as possible. On the record, Ministers insist they would never utilise the freedom to undercut EU green rules that they want to make a red line in trade deal negotiations, but whenever they do so they sound like a man asking his fiancée to sign a pre-nup that says he will never cheat, but if he does then that's fine.

As has been repeatedly explained 'Get Brexit Done' is an utterly mendacious slogan that glosses over the madcap race Johnson and co are setting up to try and agree a new EU trade deal by the end of next year. The Conservative's signature policy remains an economic and trading arrangement that will undermine the UK's growth prospects, erect trade barriers, engender rolling policy uncertainty, and cement new political divisions that could last decades. They are set to claim a mandate for this radical and reckless package with circa 42 per cent of the vote. It is hard to think of a less auspicious backdrop against which to engineer a national green industrial revolution.

And yet, 'Get Brexit Done' resonates because the alternative is similarly risk-laden. For the Conservatives to warn of the threat of two referendums next year is a bit like an arsonist burning down the house and then telling the firefighters not to play with matches. But that does not mean that they don't have a point.

Ever since Theresa May ruled out the soft Brexit that was always the most democratic and economically rational interpretation of the referendum result, there have been no good options available. She could have interpreted the 52-48 vote as the narrow mandate it was, delivered the Norway option many Leave campaigners were on the record as supporting, and challenged detractors on both sides to go away and win an election on a Hard Brexit or Rejoin the EU platform if they so desired. She would have gone down in history as the person who actually got Brexit done without torching the economy and would now likely be preparing for a comprehensive election victory. 

Instead, now we are all paying the cost, as even the path towards a softer Brexit or second referendum comes with the huge risk of yet more economic instability, paused investment, and deepening division. Again, it is hard to think of a less auspicious backdrop against which to engineer a national green industrial revolution, even before you consider how stable a coalition led by Corbyn's clique could ever be. It would be nice to think a green rainbow coalition of national unity could ride to the rescue, but it would take quite a u-turn from a generation of politicians that have spent the past few years damning each other as not just unfit for office but morally deficient.

Who then to vote for? It is complicated. Some green business types will vote Conservative in the hopes their business-led techno-optimism and green farming reforms more than compensate for the relatively paucity of their spending plans. Others will vote Conservative hoping that - as was in the case in 1992 - a defeat for Labour finally triggers a changing of the guard at the top of the party and lays the foundations for a genuine change election in five years' time that marries a Green New Deal with more voter-friendly candidates. Others will calculate that the climate emergency cannot wait another five years for a truly commensurate government-led response and will vote tactically for whichever candidate has the best prospect of blocking the Conservative's hard Brexit plans and enabling a minority Labour government that could rely on cross party support for much of its green agenda.

Each of the above rationales are legitimate and all would help deliver a government committed to building a net zero emission economy within the next three decades. It would just be nice if the leadership of all of the main Parties could instill some confidence that they have the capacity to unite the country behind this epoch-shaping agenda. Instead, the whole campaign has become a mess of nastily partisan electioneering and compromised electoral choices. It used to be said that those voting tactically went into the polling booth with a peg on their nose; this year millions of people will cast their vote with a tear in their eye.

A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing email, which is available to all BusinessGreen subscribers.

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