Don't turn off the future

The green economy in Britain is thriving - so why are politicians so reluctant to talk about it?

There is a sector where our economy is not dying, but flying. Somewhere that the UK continues to dominate the global stage, creating the deals, skills, services and products in an area the whole world is desperate to embrace. It will take until 2014 (at best) for our GDP to return to the pre-financial crisis level of 2007. In the same period, this sector will have grown by 40 per cent.

Unfortunately, this sector is the green economy. That means that, as far as some are concerned, it doesn’t count. Because green stuff isn’t meant to be about growth, only bills. In an oddly moralising way, many people seem to feel that something that does good can’t also bring economic benefits.

But it does. According to government data, last year we exported £121 million more green goods and services to Germany than we imported from them. £183 million more to India. £330 million more to China.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills tots up almost twice as many low carbon and environmental jobs - just under a million - than we have in motor trades. But, when a new car factory opens or closes it dominates the Today programme. If we’re talking about green and business in the same sentence, Nigel Lawson is released from his belfry to invade our morning bowl of cereal.

Part of the reason for this might be that the green economy doesn’t challenge existing sectors - it only strengthens them. While BIS takes a thorough and catalogued approach to their definition, the green sector is largely about changing current jobs, not replacing them.

So our green jobs can belong to people in the motor trade – such as those building hybrids in our factories. Our financial sector provides the financial and legal advice for a third of all the low carbon energy deals in the world. Green workers can be architects who design zero carbon buildings, or the manufacturers who have gone from making the iron bridges of the industrial revolution to the gears and turbine blades of the energy revolution.

When our nation decided to set out a regulatory framework supporting a low carbon agenda, we did so on the basis that those nations which moved first would receive the greatest benefit. Now we see that we have moved, and we have benefited. That’s why it’s frustrating to see that policy certainty threatened, just as the return is coming through.

This could be our way out of recession. According to the Treasury, in this financial year alone 88 per cent of our top 20 infrastructure projects are low carbon, and are worth £23 billion, compared to just £3.1 billion for high carbon projects. Some 63 per cent of this represents entirely private sector money. If you include what Treasury defines as public/private then the figure leaps to 94 per cent. By contrast, our high carbon spend for this year was 61 per cent dependant on the public purse.

The green economy is, as our recent analysis of this data called it, a UK success story. But there are worrying signals that the government may not want this success. It seems alarmingly focused on what we needed yesterday – a few more roads, a bundle of gas, perhaps squeeze in an extra airport. To this end, they are willing to sabotage something much more appealing to investors – the technologies of the future. The things that can attract far more investment because they haven’t already been developed. A letter was leaked earlier in the summer that made clear the Chancellor wants to ensure the energy of tomorrow is rejected for an expensive and outdated energy of the past. We can’t, as a nation, afford such a compromised infrastructure strategy - the equivalent of Disraeli ripping out train tracks because they threaten canals. We need to follow what we need, not what we needed, or we risk condemning this country to a policy that might run as follows – “Who needs the future when we have had the past?”

Alastair Harper is a senior policy adviser at Green Alliance, the environmental think-tank. He tweets: @HarperGA

Photo: Getty Images

Alastair Harper is Head of Politics for Green Alliance UK

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.