What’s going wrong with politics and energy – and how to fix it

Change is always tricky, but it's far from impossible, writes Green Alliance's Alastair Harper.

Uncertainty over the government’s position on our energy future is costing us. One senior Conservative figure, deeply frustrated by the situation, confided that interest rates on energy projects have increased by 15 per cent over the last few weeks, entirely because of Westminster’s energyshambles. That kind of financing leap adds up – and features later on our bills.

Changing our infrastructure is hard. It means changing things not just for those who provide it, but for the people who use it. It is a big challenge that costs and can confuse. Look at what happened recently in broadcasting – we moved from an analogue format to a digital one. A relatively minor shift in the mode of transmission, but what an effort it took.

It wasn’t just about changing our televisions. It meant changing everything from the cables in the ground to the satellites in space. Because of this, it meant changing things not just in the UK, but around the world. But it worked. How?

First, a global agreement was reached as to when the switchover should happen. Six years ago, a deadline of 17 June 2015 was registered with the United Nations. 

Each nation then agreed its domestic target for achieving the switchover – Netherlands was first in 2006, while the UK finished a few weeks ago on 24 October 2012. 

The government spent a considerable amount of money helping people with this change, overseen by an independent body of experts in the form of Digital UK. But such was the rigour and certainty with which the government went about the process (empowered by cross-party support) that it ended up costing less than expected.

You would think that a demonstrable improvement shouldn’t need government interference: the market should take care of itself. But manufacturers need coordinated targets to tell them when a product becomes redundant and new ones are needed. Retailers need to know what they should be stocking when. During the digital switchover, a clear line of direction helped the public and business to bring about a complex change together on time and under budget.

This was a huge programme of change – from making sure a regional care home had a functional communal telly, to sending new satellites into space. And this was all done not for anything as dramatic as saving the planet - just to offer a better product. 

So why is it so much more difficult for something much more important like the switch to low carbon energy? Why the newspaper headlines? Why the controversy? Why the mess?

Much of the structure is already in place. We have, as we did with the digital switchover, a nonbinding UN agreement on decarbonisation. It’s not enough, of course, but as China reduces its emissions by 15 per cent in five years, we can’t pretend not to be part of a global process.

We have a firm domestic target – an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050 as set out in the Climate Change Act.

We have the independent experts to achieve that goal in the form of the Committee on Climate Change. 

Everything should be in place to achieve the change we need, so why does it feel like something’s going wrong? It’s the politics. 

We had a target, but the politicians argued about how to meet it. We had advisers, but the politicians argued about what they advised. 

As no one knows what the direction of travel is, the costs are going up. They go up as government whips secretly support rival parties. They go up as one department calls for a gas-led future and another says it will have a limited role. When one minister says an energy technology is done, and his boss says he is wrong. This is all despite huge public support for renewables – in fact, a recent analysis showed Conservative voters want more wind, not less.

That is why business is so cross. That is why everyone from Siemens to Alstom to Virgin to Marks and Spencers to National Grid to Microsoft to Edf to Unilever  and many, many more have said we need more certainty. As Mike Barry of M&S recently said: “the certainty of the Climate Change Act has been replaced.”

At the moment, under the Climate Change Act, we only have a target for greenhouse gas emissions across the economy– everything from agriculture to refrigeration. These are all pillars, holding up the structure of our decarbonisation plan. In an ideal world we wouldn’t need a target for any one particular pillar, but a crucial one is currently looking very wobbly indeed – our electricity generation. If we don’t succeed in decarbonising electricity, everything else will have to meet much higher targets, making everything much more expensive.

As with digital switchover, as with the rail revolution, as with decimalisation, our country has prepared itself for a big change to the status quo. We should be busy achieving the change. We shouldn’t need extra frameworks  – but our politicians have let us down. We now need our politicians to show they are capable of giving businesses the structure they need to deliver without them, by listening to what those companies have told them and putting in place a clear figure on how much carbon can be in our electricity mix by 2030. 

A solar thermal generator in California's Mojave desert. Photograph: Getty Images

Alastair Harper is Head of Politics for Green Alliance UK

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.