Why Labour is right to oppose Britain’s new carbon tax

By 2015, the coalition's carbon price floor will be inextricably linked with rising energy prices.

Just after 7pm on 5 July last year a significant but largely unnoticed piece of political positioning took place that will increasingly take centre stage at Westminster.  As MPs debated the Finance Bill, line by line, Labour’s Shadow Economic Secretary, Kerry McCarthy, announced that the party would oppose the coalition’s plans to impose a carbon price floor on electricity generators and industry from April 2013. 

The then Economic Secretary, Justine Greening, sought common ground in the debate but Labour stood firm and refused to withdraw its amendment. The House divided and the legislation passed with a majority of 59. Some nervous Tory MPs decided to raise their valid concerns over the impact of a new high carbon tax and three voted against the coalition's clause with many abstentions, but this was well before coalition policy U-turns had become an established fact of Westminster proceedings.

So why was this significant, and why could this play well for Labour in the run up to the next election? Ironically, one has to look at Australia where the incumbent Labor government has just introduced its own carbon price floor (known commonly as the carbon tax) and is now trailing the Liberal/Conservative opposition by up to 20 per cent.

So what is the problem? The price of carbon, traditionally set in the market through the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS), is arguably far too low at around £5/6 per tonne, and therefore, it is argued, too uncertain for the long-term low carbon investment decisions that need to be made. In response, the coalition has decided to impose a unilateral UK carbon price floor to set a guaranteed minimum price for carbon. It has turned its back on the EU scheme, which has kept carbon prices in the UK level with those across Europe.

In effect, the new policy will introduce a UK floor on the price of carbon emissions facing power generators and industry in the UK. If the ETS price is ever above the floor, the tax would be zero; if the EUA price is below the floor, the new tax would make up the difference.

The 2011 Budget confirmed the introduction of this tax from 1 April 2013. The floor will start at £16 per tonne of carbon dioxide (tCO2) and follow a linear path to target £30/tCO2 in 2020 (both in 2009 prices), rising to £70/tCO2 in 2030. According to Treasury, the new tax would raise £3.22bn in tax revenues by 2015-16, which is (unsurprisingly enough) roughly about the amount HM Treasury offered in giveaways at the 2011 Budget. But Britain’s policy to now go it alone with its own carbon price floor from next April risks, undermining any effective and consolidated move to deliver a similar minimum price for carbon in other countries, especially across our main economic competitors in the EU.

So Britain will abandon the EU Emissions Trading Scheme where its absence will allow the price of carbon on the continent to fall to new lows. Today, the price of carbon in recession-hit Europe is only around £5/6 per tonne. It is highly likely that from April next year, when British generators and industry are paying £16 per tonne for carbon, our European competitors could be paying a third of the price. 

Also, given that over 70 per cent of UK electricity is generated from coal and gas plants, this is likely to help electricity bills to spike from 2013 further boosting fuel poverty.  By leaving the EU ETS the government has abrogated its right to lead the fight for a pan EU carbon price floor which would have allowed the UK to operate on a level playing field with the rest of Europe.

The ongoing political debate has confirmed what investors have known ever since the policy was introduced - that the "floor" is nothing more than another fuel duty escalator that can't possibly be banked on, that it won't actually reduce net emissions in the EU; that the best way of introducing a carbon price floor is at a European level and this has been largely been ignored; and that it is a policy that will do nothing for investor confidence, except for providing a windfall to existing low carbon generation, particularly existing nuclear power stations.

So Labour goes to the general election opposing the coalition’s new carbon tax, which by 2015 will inevitably have its fingerprints all over rising energy prices and will have caused some sections of energy intensive industry to scale back plans and cut jobs. Whilst Ed Miliband might not sound or look like Australia’s Tony Abbott, his opposition to Britain’s new carbon tax could prove just as effective as Abbott’s, but with Britain’s voters.

Tony Lodge is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies.  His new pamphlet, The Atomic Clock – How the Coalition is Gambling with Britain’s Energy Policy, is published by the CPS.

 

Electricity pylons crossing the Essex countryside. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.