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18 September 2022

Why Labour is going green at its conference

The party’s conference slogan will be “fairer, greener future” as it looks to counter the rise of the Green Party.

By Rachel Wearmouth

The Green Party has steadily built the climate movement into a formidable electoral force in Britain. May’s local elections marked yet another record-breaking set of results for the party, which now has more than 500 councillors spread across 167 town halls.

The Greens made gains in South Tyneside, Cumberland, Oxford and Worcester, taking seats from both Labour and the Conservatives and won a third seat on the London Assembly. In Scotland, meanwhile, their sister party the Scottish Greens now shares power with the SNP and its MSPs serve as ministers in the Scottish government. Across the UK, the Greens now regularly poll around 7 per cent and their continued progress is a trend that the larger parties, especially those of the centre left, cannot ignore.

It makes sense, therefore, that Deborah Mattinson, Keir Starmer’s director of strategy, told insiders this week that Labour must use its conference next week in Liverpool to “pivot to green”. The party’s conference slogan will be “fairer, greener future” – strikingly similar to the Greens’ “fairer, greener country” – and policy announcements will focus on “energy security”, with attacks on Liz Truss’s fracking drive potentially combined with commitments to both onshore and offshore wind and hydrogen power.

“We are going to deliver growth and ensure it’s working people who feel the benefit,” said one Labour source. “We’re going to end the short-termism that sees us lurch from crisis to crisis, turn around Britain’s current malaise and give the country its future back.”

But the party’s decision to double down on green policy – after the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves promised £28bn-a-year on climate investment last year – has left some in Labour frustrated as they argue that the vast majority of voters are most concerned with the record fall in living standards and that “even more green stuff” will dilute the party’s message. 

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One trade union source said: “Any increased focus on pro-green policies must not come at the expense of concentrating on this cost-of-living crisis – that’s what the public is really worried about.”

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But Labour’s renewed focus on environmental policy could also bear fruit with Red Wall voters as well as those groups more traditionally predisposed to the Greens. Polling by Public First earlier this year showed that if the Conservatives scrap their target of net-zero emissions it would cost them 1.3 million votes at the next general election. Two in five 2019 Tory voters would be less likely to vote for the party again.

The research also found that working-class Tories are more supportive of investing in renewable energy and more optimistic about new jobs in manufacturing than affluent middle-class Tories. Trade unions who represent workers in the energy sector will be suspicious, however, and may already be hostile towards Starmer after his ban on frontbenchers joining picket lines.

Labour for a New Democracy has submitted a motion calling for the party to back proportional representation (PR), which may pass given Unison has joined other trade unions in backing electoral reform. This, however, would not commit Labour to including PR in its manifesto. 

Starmer will be most worried about a motion from the left-wing group Momentum, which calls for real-terms pay rises for public sector staff and states that Labour should welcome MPs visiting and speaking at picket lines.

But activists are also pushing for Starmer’s green agenda to include public ownership – something he committed to during his 2020 Labour leadership campaign. The pressure group Labour for a Green New Deal is appealing a decision to block its motion, which calls for “democratic public ownership models across the economy, led by national public ownership of key sectors” – including energy, rail, mail, water and green manufacturing technologies – from being debated on the conference floor.

[See also: What to expect from Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-Budget on Friday]