Labour has a bright green mandate, now it needs to use it

James Murray
clock • 7 min read
Credit: Kirsty O'Connor/ No 10 Downing Street

Credit: Kirsty O'Connor/ No 10 Downing Street

The new government's climate plans are bolder and more radical than many people realise - it now has a duty to put them into action

The battle for the narrative never ends. You would think that with 412 seats in his back pocket and having just orchestrated the heaviest ever defeat on the 'natural party of government' (citation very much needed), Keir Starmer's mandate to deliver on his sweeping agenda would be irreproachable. And yet within minutes of the exit poll being released the talking points were already being sharpened to poke holes in the authority of the new government.

It was a 'loveless landslide', Labour's support was as broad as the country but 'as shallow as the village pond', the low turnout and crushing Tory defeat was less the result of five years of self-indulgent in-fighting and flat-lining living standards and more a function of people having 'lost faith in politics'. The ability of Labour to secure one of the biggest Parliamentary majorities in history with just 35 per cent of the vote was not evidence of the vagaries of the first past the post system, but proof the new government's mandate is much thinner than it looks.

Like all the best myths there is a grain of truth in this analysis, but ultimately it is a nonsense. And if Labour is to have any chance of delivering on Starmer's promise of a "calm and patient rebuilding" of the British public sphere then it needs to push back hard against this embryonic storyline before it starts to define his fledgling government. You can't take a moment's rest in the battle for the narrative. It was encouraging to see Starmer use his speech on the doorstep of Number 10 this afternoon to confidently declare his government has a "clear mandate and we will use it to deliver real change". He's right, it does. 

The reality is Labour's mandate is as historic as its victory margin. The first past the post system is imperfect in many ways, but it is the system we have and it is the system Labour's campaign and manifesto were designed to win within. People were encouraged to vote tactically and millions responded. Their primary motivation may have been to oust a Conservative government that had failed on its own terms, all too frequently demonstrating contempt for the British public in the process. But the bulk of these tactical voters were evidently intensely relaxed with the prospect of a Labour government. Labour may have only got 35 per cent of the vote, but the broadly progressive parties of Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens, SNP, and Plaid Cymru secured 55 per cent.

This loose coalition is important to consider when looking at the mandate for Labour's green plans, which are set to quickly become one of the main political battlegrounds of the next Parliament.

All the main parties backed the UK's net zero targets, including the Conservatives. Those parties calling for a more ambitious climate strategy hoovered up well over half the votes and one of them is now sitting on a 170 seat majority. According to an analysis from Greenpeace, 18 out of 23 of the Conservative's 'net zero sceptic' MPs lost their seats. There are now four new Green MPs and 71 Lib Dems who stood on manifestos promising to pull forward the UK's net zero target date.

The only party that wants to scrap the nation's climate goals (for now at least) is Reform UK, which secured around 15 per cent of the vote and four seats. There is now much concern about the Reform  UK breakthrough and the potential for a populist, climate sceptic, reactionary nationalist party to dominate the right of British politics. The evidence from around the world is this risk is real and all the main parties - and especially moderate Conservatives - need a strategy to push back against the Farage-ist tendency.

But there is another way to interpret yesterday's results. Even when going up against the chaotic and incompetent clown car government of Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, and Rishi Sunak, Reform couldn't even reach 15 per cent of the vote. There is still a pretty low ceiling to its support.

From an environmental perspective, the results are entirely in line with what polling has been saying for months, if not years. Around three-quarters of people support the UK's net zero targets and want bolder climate action. Barely one- in-10 are opposed. Even when asked about potentially controversial climate policies, such as planning reforms and new pylon projects, there tends to be a comfortable majority for bolder action.

None of this is to suggest there is room for complacency. Several of the favourites to be the next Conservative leader have said they want to scrap or dilute the UK's net zero targets. Labour has won big, but the average seat majority has fallen from 11,200 in 2019 to around 6,700 and the electorate is clearly less politically tribal than ever before. There are no safe seats any more. The leadership's decision to offer constant reassurance around Labour's fiscal discipline and its opposition to 'ripping out' anyone's boilers has clearly been vindicated. It will not ditch the safety-first, 'no drama Starmer' approach just because it now has the trappings of government.

But equally, there are risks in being too cautious. The only way to stop the Reform resurgence is to deliver the economic growth, infrastructure investment, and public service improvements Starmer has promised. In this context, triangulation and incrementalism carries with it more risks than a full spectrum policy blitz and demonstrable progress. If there was one unifying message from today's election results it is that 'we can't go on like this'. The frustration of the electorate is palpable.

As one of the only parts of the economy that is currently growing, the green economy has to be central to this mission to rebuild and revive the UK.

There are a lot of easy wins available. The de facto ban on new onshore wind farms could be lifted within days, more funding for energy efficiency programmes is a simple lever to pull, the new National Wealth Fund and GB Energy could be set up within months, deals are already close to being finalised to secure investment in new nuclear, carbon capture, and hydrogen projects. The budget for the next clean power contract auction could be nudged upwards with negligible impact on bills.

Most importantly, there is a lot of private sector investment to be unlocked through the simple virtue of having a government that is not a rolling carnival of chaos. It went largely unnoticed, but several times on the campaign trail Labour Shadow  Ministers let slip they had some big investment announcements lined up for the summer. It could be an eventful and encouraging few months.

Labour will inevitably face more opposition to its proposals to reform the planning system and end the issuance of new oil and gas licenses. It is also unclear whether Rachel Reeves' spending plans are sufficient to enable such an ambitious agenda, especially when it comes to the most politically delicate task of decarbonising people's homes.

But done right the rewards arising from these sweeping green plans far outweigh the risks. The potential is there to turbocharge investment in the industries of the future, making the UK arguably the first major economy in the world to put its policy framework fully and unequivocally in the service of the green industrial revolution and the civilisation-shaping decarbonisation it can deliver. The commitment to stop drilling for ever more fossil fuels is an historic moment of global leadership. It heralds an end to short termism and a recognition of what the clean energy transition really means. You drill if you want to, the UK does not want your stranded assets.  

Investors will reward such clarity, good jobs will be created, energy bills will be reduced, and quality of life will improve. A vibrant community of clean tech start-ups, green business unicorns, and net zero-committed corporates stand ready to serve. The foundations can be laid over the next five years for the truly transformational deep decarbonisation that will come in the 2030s.

Labour and its allies have won the argument, for now at least. A bright green mandate is secured - it has to be protected, but it also has to be used.

You can now sign up to attend the fifth annual Net Zero Festival, which will be hosted by BusinessGreen on October 22-23 at the Business Design Centre in London.

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