Labour’s vision for a green economic future

Unlike the Conservatives, a Labour government would make sustainable energy a major national priority and give business the confidence to invest.

Tonight, at the annual Green Alliance debate, I will join an audience of business leaders, environmental campaigners and scientists to discuss Britain’s energy future.

Ten years ago, if you were attending a meeting of environmental campaigners and big business, you would have planned for a stand-off. Not anymore. The scope and breadth of the consensus across business and the environmental lobby is striking - something that would have been impossible to imagine a decade ago.

Of course, there are still big debates about the details. But everyone from Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace to the CBI, Alstom and Siemens agree that ensuring sustainable, affordable and reliable energy needs to be at the heart of any economic policy.

Getting energy policy right for the next 20 years is one of the biggest challenges – and the biggest opportunity - our economy faces in this generation. Nobody seriously questions that in the coming decades all countries will have to generate much more energy using renewable sources. The alternative is devastating climate change, ever rising prices and energy insecurity.

That is why business has been gearing up to deliver this energy revolution. As Green Alliance has confirmed today in a new analysis of UK infrastructure needs, our country already has planned investment in low carbon infrastructure of £180bn between now and 2020. Offshore wind alone is worth more than planned spending on gas, roads and airports combined.

The business view is clear: we can and should unlock major investment, huge numbers of jobs and secure our energy future over the next few years. Major firms tell us they are poised to make significant investments here in the UK that would generate vital domestic expertise and supply chains as well as the exports and jobs of the future. And the UK has a potentially world leading position in offshore wind, wave and tidal power.

Failure to invest will mean not just lost jobs but higher energy bills too. As Ofgem warned earlier this year, without new investment in renewable energy, we could well see a growing reliance on imported gas ramping up energy bills for consumers. And delaying the transition to a low carbon economy will also mean an expensive rushed transition – with the extra costs again pushing up energy bills. But needed investment and reform depends on leadership from government. And time and time again, I hear from business and green campaigners alike that this leadership is currently absent.

My fear is that the UK currently risks snatching defeat from the jaws of potential victory. At the heart of this failure is Chancellor George Osborne’s unholy alliance with his troublesome backbenchers. Faced with the choice between short-termist nods to hard-line Tory opinion or the strategic leadership that Britain needs, the Chancellor has chosen the politically easy but economically reckless path.

By refusing to agree a decarbonisation target in the Energy Bill, by raising the prospect of a new 'dash to gas' instead of renewables, by shackling the Green Investment Bank, and by failing to implement the scale and certainty of policy needed to effectively de-risk investment, the government has actively undermined business plans to create jobs and growth.

In 2010, the UK was third in the world for investment in green growth - but we have since fallen down the league tables. The danger is that we will see investment and manufacturing expertise which should be based here in Britain going to other European countries instead.

First, the government has failed to set the clear long-term targets that business needs to invest with certainty. Yes, it remains formally committed to carbon targets for 2050 through the Climate Change Act passed with cross-party support under Labour. But the independent Committee on Climate Change has made clear that this target will require largely de-carbonising electricity by 2030. And yet George Osborne has blocked the government from making a clear commitment in law to this 2030 target. Meanwhile, in Europe, the government is blocking moves to set ambitious renewable and efficiency targets for 2030 at an EU level.

Worse than that, George Osborne has fostered exactly the kind of policy uncertainty that scares away long-term investment. By talking up the possibility of an implausible shale gas bonanza to justify tacking away from renewables after the 2020 targets run out, he has cast further doubt on the government’s long-term commitment to a low carbon future. Business is being denied the confidence of knowing they will have a market and a price structure they can rely on over the investment horizon they need.

Second, the government has failed to play its part in supporting new renewable and clean technologies. Carbon capture and storage, where the UK once led the way, has stalled again. And while Ministers try to claim the credit for setting up the Green Investment Bank which Labour proposed, the government has undermined it from the start. Giving the Bank the power to borrow on the open market would lever in several times more capital and get considerably more bang for the government’s buck.

Perversely, the Chancellor arbitrarily tied this decision to him meeting his target on the national debt. Now, thanks to his wider economic failure meaning he is now not set to meet that target until 2017, the Bank has been left in limbo with neither co-investors nor the sector able to plan ahead. It is an opportunity that George Osborne seems incapable of grasping.

And third, on energy efficiency, the government has failed to deliver. The construction industry is crying out for clarity on the next steps in Labour’s successful zero-carbon homes strategy. The Green Deal, which replaced previous successful domestic energy efficiency schemes, has so far helped just four households this year.

What Britain really needs is leadership, policy certainty and a cross-party consensus to match the one that exists in industry to deliver an economy with strong and sustained prosperity. We need a clear plan for the future of energy generation, energy efficiency in the home, nuclear, gas, renewables and carbon capture and storage.

Labour’s approach will seek to deliver that. Ed Miliband, Caroline Flint and I have all said the government should commit now for a 2030 energy decarbonisation target. Delaying any decision on a commitment until 2016 is a huge missed opportunity. And because the UK should be leading and not following on the global stage, the government should be working with our EU partners to set clear goals and lead from the front in the run up to the Paris 2015 global talks, as we did in the run-up to Kyoto and Copenhagen. That is the way to lead and win the 'global race' that Conservative ministers talk about, rather than trying to turn it in a race to the bottom.

We will also put an end to the mixed signals that are causing confusion and deterring investment by posing a false choice between gas and renewable energy. We support efforts to secure new domestic gas supply, although there are real environmental concerns that must be addressed. We will need a secure gas supply in the decades ahead. But while 'fracking' has had a major impact on energy prices in the US, most experts believe any impact in Europe is uncertain at best. Any balanced and low-carbon energy strategy for the years ahead will need gas, renewable energy and, in our view, nuclear too.

We need clarity on the Green Investment Bank too – to support new technologies and to support energy efficiency. So the government should end the current uncertainty and commit now to giving the Green Investment Bank borrowing powers in 2015. If it fails then the next Labour government will do so as soon as possible after the next election, so that the Green Investment Bank can help to raise our ambition on energy efficiency to insulate homes, cut fuel poverty, bring down bills, create jobs and stimulate the economy in the process.

So the green economy and low carbon energy will be central to Labour’s plans in government. Andrew Adonis’s work for us on industrial strategy will also have energy and environmental policy at its heart. So will Sir John Armitt’s review into the way in which we make our infrastructure decisions. Without a low carbon infrastructure plan and economic strategy, in the modern economy you simply don’t have an economic plan.

Our vision is for a race to the top – to secure a world-leading position for British businesses in helping the world meet the low carbon challenge – and in doing so create prosperity and jobs for people in this country.

US President Barack Obama, in his recent speech on climate change, called for those worried about how he would deliver on his climate goals to have faith in "American ingenuity". I believe this is a challenge that Britain can and must rise to as well. The country that led the industrial revolution shouldn’t simply look on as our competitors press ahead.

And it is because we have faith in British ingenuity that a Labour government would make sustainable energy a major national priority and give business the confidence to invest in the UK. The costs of failure to our environment are well known. But the costs to our long term prosperity and security are just as great.

Ed Balls is the shadow chancellor and MP for Morley and Outwood

"The UK has a potentially world leading position in offshore wind, wave and tidal power." Photograph: Getty Images.

Ed Balls is the shadow chancellor and MP for Morley and Outwood

Getty Images.
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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.