Why MPs must block George Osborne’s dash for gas

The Chancellor's plans will cost bill payers £25bn more in the 2020s than developing low-carbon energy and breach the UK's climate change targets.

The next 20 years, starting now, will see colossal investment in overhauling Britain’s ageing electricity infrastructure, as old coal and nuclear power stations are closed, and the grid gets updated. A vote in Parliament this week on a clean power target amendment to the government’s Energy Bill will determine what sorts of new kit we will get.

The battle lines are drawn over competing visions of the future. A fossil-fuelled, Treasury and George Osborne future, involving tripling the amount of electricity we get from gas, or a low-carbon future, involving ramping up the power we get from Britain’s near-limitless resources from the waves, water, wind, tides and sun.

At stake are living standards, jobs and the economy, and climate change. Domestic fuel bills will soar if we stay chained to volatile global gas prices - it is spiralling gas price rises which have been responsible for the majority of people’s electricity and gas bill rises in the last decade. The independent committee on climate change’s analysis shows that Osborne’s dash-for-gas will cost bill payers £25bn more in the 2020s than developing low-carbon energy. At a time of squeezed living standards, households are handing over larger and larger shares of their income to the big six energy companies. Only a massive programme of energy efficiency that gets the UK off the fossil fuel hook can protect ordinary people.

There are hundreds of thousands of jobs in the green economy, one of the few sectors to grow in recession-hit Britain. But its future is uncertain. A huge coalition of more than 200 leading businesses, energy investors, trade unions and charities, including household names like Asda and Microsoft, as well as leading manufacturers like Siemens, Mitsubishi, Alstom, are saying a decarbonisation target in the Energy Bill is essential to give companies the confidence to invest in low carbon energy and the supply chains to build it.

If Osborne gets his way, there is no question that the UK will breach its legally binding climate change targets. The difference between the Chancellor's vision and low-carbon power is staggering. Osborne’s plans involve increasing the amount of gas-power in the 2020s to the equivalent of over 30 new gas power plants. This amounts to over 500 million extra tonnes of carbon dioxide: equivalent to every car and taxi on the road for eight years, or every flight for 16 years.

Where will Osborne’s gas come from? North Sea gas reserves are falling fast. So we can either massively increase our energy dependence on gas imports from countries like Qatar, or we can try and plug the gap with shale gas – but for that to provide more than a fraction of our needs we would need thousands of wells across the country. Both these options look like political poison. A recent article on ConservativeHome, "The right-wing consensus on shale gas is about to be blown apart", concluded: "shale gas must also have a huge physical presence across large swathes of rural England. .. it will have political consequences – bigger than wind farms, bigger than HS2 and bigger, even, than greenfield housing development".

All economies need to get off fossil fuels and fast. Electricity is the place to start. MPs get to decide this Tuesday. Nearly 300 MPs from across all parties back the decarbonisation target. The vote will be close. Full turn-out from Labour (who back the target), and a few more Conservative and Liberal Democrats (whose policy it is to support the target but whose leadership is currently siding with Osborne) will help put the UK at the forefront of a clean energy revolution. As Sir John Ashton, the UK’s former climate change envoy said this month: "I can’t myself see how any MP who votes against the target will thereafter be able credibly to claim that they support an effective response to climate change".

Simon Bullock is senior campaigner on climate change at Friends of the Earth

George Osborne makes a visit to the Prysmian Group factory in the constituency of Eastleigh on February 13, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Simon Bullock is senior campaigner on climate change at Friends of the Earth

Photo: Getty
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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.