Ed Miliband addressing Labour Party Conference as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in 2009. Photo: Getty
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Leading on climate change must form an essential part of Labour’s foreign policy

It's one of the biggest political issues we have ever faced.

The context of the foreign policy of the next Labour Government will differ significantly from the last. With the drawdown from Afghanistan, for the first time in over decade the UK’s role in the world will not be primarily defined by a prolonged military engagement. As Ukraine and Syria show, international flashpoints are never far away, but with substantially reduced armed forces and the need to reflect on experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, the question will be where and how should the UK focus our considerable influence and resources?

One of the answers must certainly be in the UK leading international action to tackle climate change. Today’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) lays bare the scale of the task – climate change is already happening, it is set to get much worse, and there will be profound consequences for the UK and the world if action to mitigate it is not stepped up now.

The Paris Conference in December 2015 will therefore be a global summit of huge importance. It will provide an opportunity for the world’s leaders to reach agreement on a legally-binding treaty to ensure we have the ability to prevent a global temperature rise above 2 degrees. The success of this conference is vital, and the UK – under the leadership of Prime Minister Ed Miliband – could be pivotal in making that happen.

Much is made of the influence and diplomatic clout provided by the UK’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council, or as a principal nuclear power, but the influence and goodwill generated on the world stage by being in the vanguard of tackling climate change should not be underestimated. As the first country in the world to pass binding legislation to tackle emissions the UK has a great deal of credit in the bank – credit that, unfortunately, is beginning to be eroded by the increasingly agnostic view of the Coalition Government. Labour must restore and build on that.

What would success look like? An agreement that includes for the first time all of the major emitters and which contains quantified mitigation commitments and legally binding rules, including short commitment periods and regular reviews to avoid lock-in to low ambition. It will also need to address issues of finance, deforestation and climate adaptation. Many people worry that such a treaty is too difficult to achieve given the unlikelihood of any US President persuading the Senate to ratify an international treaty. But over the last year, under President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, there has been a fundamental shift in US attitudes to climate change. Though declining to ratify many treaties the US often does comply and the possibility exists for the US to take on commitments by Executive Order under the already ratified UNFCC Convention. It can also introduce new policies under the existing Clean Air Act even if new domestic legislation is currently difficult to achieve. The attitude of the US and what it does will invariably impact on the approach that China takes, but we should recognise that climate change, and related issues around air quality and environmental degradation, are issues that China’s leaders take extremely seriously.

The politics of this will naturally be challenging. Many perceive a conflict between addressing climate change and ensuring economic growth, or are concerned about the impact of low-carbon generation on the affordability of energy. But for the UK this agenda also represents an enormous opportunity for the future – we should remember that the green economy is one of the few areas where the UK currently has a positive balance of trade with China. It also brings with it a host of related benefits in terms of energy security, better housing, and greater sustainability for business. For countries where this will be more of a burden, however, the UK should use its considerable international aid resources to assist with their transition.

For a safe and prosperous future, and for a chance to engage a new generation in one of the biggest political issues we have ever faced, leading on climate change and the Paris Conference must form an essential part of Labour’s foreign policy during the next Government.

Jonathan Reynolds is the MP for Stalybridge and Hyde and a Shadow Minister for Energy and Climate Change.

Jonathan Reynolds is Labour/Coop MP for Stalybridge and Hyde and Chair of Christians on the Left.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.