Danny Alexander picks an important fight with Osborne

Scrap over climate change policy.

In tabling a motion for the Liberal Democrats autumn conference on low carbon policy, Danny Alexander MP, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has picked an important fight with his boss, the Chancellor George Osborne. Alexander’s feet must be kept to the fire on this if Britain is to have any chance of achieving its legal obligations to decarbonise the power sector.

Alexander’s motion roundly criticizes "the refusal of the Conservatives to acknowledge that investing in carbon reducing technologies has the potential to make an important contribution to long-term growth".

There is no one this accusation can be more squarely aimed at than Alexander’s boss in the Treasury, the Chancellor George Osborne.

Since his autumn 2011 conference speech, Osborne has been almost wholly negative on the low carbon agenda. "We are not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business", he said putting himself squarely at odds with business groups like the CBI and EEF who see the green economy as a key driver of growth. Indeed, the green economy grew by 2.3 per cent in real terms in 2010/11, and made up a third of what little growth Britain managed in 2011/12.

Most recently Osborne was heavily rebuked by the Energy and Climate Change Committee for undermining the development of the government’s flagship Energy Bill, which is intended to bring forward vast amounts of investment in low carbon energy sources. Osborne seems far more interested in making the UK a fossil fuel hub and frightening the wind industry than going low carbon.

The Chancellor is likely to be particularly angered by Alexander’s proposal for the Government to establish a 2030 decarbonisation target for the power sector, in the range of 50 to 100 grams of CO2 emissions per kilowatt hour of energy produced. 2030 is a crucial staging post towards the UK reducing its emissions by 80 per cent 2050, and, while the independent Committee on Climate Change and the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee have recommended that a target of 50g by 2030 for the power sector is adopted, it is something to which Osborne appears firmly opposed. The mismatch between Alexander’s proposed target range of 50g to 100g, instead of the stricter 50g recommended by the Committee on Climate Change, is something that requires an explanation.

It is our view, set out in our submission to the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, that adoption of a 2030 power sector target is the single most important step the Government can take to provide certainty to industry about the direction of travel for the energy industry. Providing this certainty, we believe, will ensure that energy bills are kept as low as possible and the UK reaps the maximum benefits from growth in low carbon sectors, while at the same time emissions are reduced.

Danny Alexander is right to challenge the Chancellor on climate change policy because going low carbon is the only credible economic policy. It is now time for others to come out in support of the 2030 target and ensure it is adopted by government in the Energy Bill. This includes the Labour party; prominent green-minded Conservative MPs like Zac Goldsmith, Oliver Letwin and William Hague who are witnessing the rapid deterioration of their party’s reputation on climate change; and industry pressure groups like the CBI that are supportive of ambitious emission reduction policies.

Reg Platt is a Research Fellow at IPPR. He tweets at @regplatt

George Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images

Reg Platt is a Research Fellow at IPPR. He tweets as @regplatt.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.