Osborne's anti-green agenda is strangling growth

The government's refusal to commit to a decarbonisation target is preventing the creation of tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs.

With growth in the British economy so anaemic, you would have thought George Osborne would welcome it wherever it could be found.  Particularly in the manufacturing sector, whose weak performance in recent years has kept the UK stuck in trade deficit. Yet this week the Chancellor stands accused of actively preventing the creation of tens of thousands of British manufacturing jobs. 

The charge is levelled in an extraordinary letter sent to Osborne (along with Business Secretary Vince Cable and Energy Secretary Ed Davey) by six of the world’s largest energy manufacturers. These companies – Alstom, Mitsubishi, Doosan, Areva, Vestas and Gamesa – between them already employ over 12,000 people in the UK. For the past few years they have all been developing investment plans, collectively worth hundreds of millions of pounds, to build factories in Britain to supply the country with low carbon energy equipment, in fields such as offshore wind, nuclear power, energy efficiency and carbon capture and storage. But in their open letter they warn that these investments, and the jobs they will create, will not go ahead if the government does not commit to a long-term low carbon electricity target in its Energy Bill now passing through Parliament. And it is no secret that it is Osborne who is blocking that commitment. 

Energy policy can be an arcane affair, but this issue is pretty straightforward. Since Labour’s pioneering Climate Change Act in 2008, UK energy policy has been on a long-term trajectory to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by shifting supply towards renewables (particularly wind), along with some nuclear, and gas fired power stations fitted ultimately with carbon capture and storage.  As a result, global manufacturers in these fields have been looking to build factories in Britain to supply the required equipment – with at least six companies developing sites on the east coast to manufacture offshore wind turbines alone. But over the last six months uncertainty has suddenly crept in, putting these investments at risk. And the reason is Osborne.

At present the UK only has an energy policy out to 2020. But investors need a longer timeframe than that – anything they plan now will barely be in operation by then. So the policy they are calling for is a legal limit to the emissions which the electricity sector will be allowed by 2030. This will give certainty to energy companies and their suppliers about the technologies to be installed. There is remarkable unanimity around the need for such a ‘decarbonisation target’ – last month 35 companies, NGOs and other organisations signed a joint statement in support.  It is well known that Ed Davey, the Lib Dem Energy Minister, wanted such a target in the Energy Bill, but Osborne objected. Hence the very pointed addressing of the letter from the six global manufacturers this week to the Chancellor as well as to Davey.

The wider context here is rather remarkable. The British economy now produces far more jobs in green industries than it does in brown or dirty ones. Last year the CBI produced a report, The Colour of Growth, estimating that over a third of the UK’s economic growth in 2011-12 came from green business. Now worth £122bn annually to the UK economy, the environmental sector has been growing (despite the recession) at over 2 per cent a year for the last five years. It employs just under a million people and is taking an increasing share of a rapidly growing global market, so also reducing Britain’s trade deficit.  These facts have in turn made CBI into a rather remarkable cheerleader for stronger environmental policies. 

So why is Osborne setting himself against one of the few job-creating sectors of the otherwise flatlinng British economy? (He has also interfered to obstruct new regulations enduring that new homes are low-carbon.) The answer appears to be entirely political.  Fired up by rural opposition to onshore windfarms and a more general anxiety about rising energy bills, and backed by an increasingly strident campaign in the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, a revolt against low carbon policy has developed among a number of backbench Tories, and it’s their support that Osborne is now after. 

His alternative energy policy is the so-called ‘dash for gas’. In the US the exploitation of cheap shale gas has revolutionised energy supply, displacing coal, and this has led to hopes that the same might happen in the UK.  But there is no evidence that we have anything like the reserves found in the US, and being part of a competitive European market there is no guarantee that they would be cheap. On the contrary, a report by the IPPR last week showed that relying on volatile gas markets would cost the economy more than the decarbonisation target if gas prices rise in line with market expectations – and much more if gas prices are higher.  It is high wholesale gas prices which have been responsible for almost the entire rise in energy bills over recent years, not green policy.

But Osborne is now under pressure.  For the Tory chairman of the environment select committee, Tim Yeo, has tabled an amendment to the Energy Bill inserting a 2030 decarbonisation target. Labour have committed to supporting it. Now six Liberal Democrats, defying agreed Coalition policy, have done the same, with the party’s president, Tim Farron, indicating that he too will vote for it.  It will take only a few more Lib Dems to break ranks in support of their own party policy and the government will be facing defeat.  

This may come down to the increasingly abrasive relationship between Nick Clegg and David Cameron.  Buoyed by the Eastleigh by-election, the newly assertive Lib Dem leader faces intense pressure from his own party to tell Cameron that he must finally make good on his tattered promise to lead "the greenest government ever". But in doing so the Prime Minister knows that he would have to defeat his own Chancellor. 

George Osborne wears a high visibility jacket as he makes a visit to the Prysmian Group factory in the constituency of Eastleigh. Photograph: Getty Images.

Michael Jacobs is visiting professor in the Department of Political Science / School of Public Policy at UCL and at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics. He is co-editor of the Political Quarterly

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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.