Ed Miliband won't be able to defeat the Greens on green policy. Photo: Getty
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Why Labour can't counter the Greens' popularity with green policies

A difficult climate.

This week, we have learnt that the Greens are now a bigger party than Ukip. Their membership rocketed up 2,000 overnight to reach 43,829. We already know that Labour, in response to the surge in support and membership of the small left-wing party over the past few months, has set up an anti-Green unit under shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan in an attempt to counter the threat to its votes from Natalie Bennett's troops.

What we've also learnt this week is that the Prime Minister sees the Greens as such an important potential threat to his rivals that he has refused to take part in the leaders' televised debates unless Bennett is also included.

And news has broken today of Tory MPs' plans to split Labour's vote by encouraging left-wing voters in their constituencies to support the Greens, who are aiming to run in 75 per cent of seats this election.

However, one thing that has fallen under the radar, under all this political greenery, is Ed Miliband's launch of something called "action/2015" yesterday at a London school. There, he commited the next Labour government to seeking to "raise global ambitions for combating extreme poverty, inequality and climate change".

Here's what he promised on the latter subject:

In 2015, after the General Election here, the countries of the world will come together to agree two plans.

The first plan aims to eradicate poverty over the next fifteen years. And the second will tackle climate change.

These two plans affect all of us: everyone in this room, everyone across the world, and especially, everyone in your generation because they will help determine the world you will live in.

They matter. And what the British government does at these conferences – what it does in your name - matters too.

I know tackling climate change, global poverty and inequality are not as fashionable as they once were. But I also know they are more important than ever.

For me, they are not luxury items in our programme for change. They are not part of a branding exercise. They go to the heart of my beliefs and the reason why I entered politics.

This is about ensuring the next generation can do better than the last in this country and around the world . . . 

The progress of the last 15 years in the tackling poverty, improving health, on food security and access to sanitation could all be eroded if global temperatures are allowed to soar. I believe tackling climate change is the most important thing I can do in politics for my children’s generation. It demands leadership and resolve.

So in Paris next year, a Labour government would be pushing for global targets for reducing carbon emissions that rise every five years with regular reviews towards the long-term goal of what the science now tells us is necessary – zero net global emissions in the latter half of this century.

All admirable promises, and from a man who was the first ever Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. However, his green policy proposals will not help him counter the threat to his party's support from the Greens. This is due to three reasons:

It's not as "fashionable"

Miliband's own acknowledgement that climate change is not a "fashionable" subject is truer than maybe even he realises. The Labour leader was referring to David Cameron's 2005 rebrand of the Tories – hugging huskies and generally making his green credentials central to his image as Tory leader – and how it was all really a hollow "branding exercise".

However, green policy is no longer top of the agenda due to a number of reasons. Chiefly, economic realities have pushed it down the list of spending priorities. And it seems even the Greens have accepted this. They are no longer supported simply because they are the party of eco-friendly policies. Like the other parties, the Greens have been concentrating far more on economic policies in this parliament. However, their economic policies are formulated to tackle inequality and challenge austerity – free education, scrapping the welfare cap, reducing the pay gap, and turning the minimum wage into a living wage, for example. People are voting Green because the party provides a radical alternative to the economic policies, and consensus on the need for further austerity, of the Conservatives and Labour.

Playing on enemy turf

A little like the Tory leadership having to speak more than they'd like about EU membership and immigration, in an ill-advised attempt to shoot Ukip's fox, Labour talking about the environment is playing on the Greens' turf. Voters whose main priorities concern the environment are unlikely to vote for Miliband's handful of green proposals, emphasised almost as an afterthought a few months before the general election, when there is another party that historically has dedicated itself to environmentally-friendly policies.

Picking the wrong battle

There is a way for Labour to combat the Greens' popularity, but the environment isn't it. As I have reported before, the best rhetoric Labour can use is to emphasise the costly, predominantly middle-class nature of the "green lifestyle". Key figures in the Green Party admit that this is an area where it needs to improve, trying to broaden the appeal of living sustainably beyond the narrow section of society that can afford to do so. One of Miliband's aides revealed to my colleague, Tim, that this is Labour's best bet against the Greens, commenting: “We’ve found the best line of attack is to attack the Greens as an upper-middle class lifestyle choice.” There hasn't been much evidence of the party publicly using this attack line, but it would serve it well, and would be more effective than hoping a few green pledges will do the trick.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.