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11 January 2023

“We have an open goal”: how Labour plans to unlock the climate vote

A new party forum including leading MPs wants to build consensus and challenge the Tories’ rural dominance.

By India Bourke

Since coming to power last October, Rishi Sunak has failed to attend Cop27, approved a coal mine and barely mentioned climate change in his New Year speech, as Ed Miliband reminded the audience at the launch of Labour’s Climate and Environment Forum this Tuesday (10 January). But the combined environmental and climate crisis is “too central to our country’s future to ignore”, the shadow climate secretary continued, and Labour must step up where the Tories are failing. “We don’t want just the headline commitments, but to be ready to implement it.”

The forum (whose name is shortened to L-Cef, not the more Gallic sounding “L’Cef”) has been established to help achieve just that. Gathering its members from across the party’s parliamentary, local, union, NGO and activist contingents, its composition will mirror that of the Conservative Environment Network. It will educate the Labour movement on the importance of action to protect the climate and environment, as well as provide a “neutral space to build consensus on the more complex issues”, explained its director, Paul McNamee, whose previous posts include head of politics at the Green Alliance think tank.

Those “complex issues”, Mcnamee told Spotlight, could include the use of hydrogen, over which there is no clear consensus, or the future of food and farming given experts say the amount of land used for livestock must be reduced. McNamee was optimistic that “climate and environment has so far stayed out of culture war territory, relative to the US”, yet cautioned vigilance against narratives that claim climate action is too expensive, as pushed by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a climate-sceptic think tank.

There’s also the issue of the party’s culture to overcome. Labour has traditionally been a party of urban voters, while the Conservatives have dominated in rural shires. Jim McMahon, the shadow environment secretary, is adamant this must change. “Of course I’m the champion of farmers, I’m working class. Farmers are grafters, we’ve got a lot in common,” he said at the forum launch. The ultimate challenge, he suggested, is how to convince someone living in a terrace street in a “concrete jungle” that the climate and nature crises are ones they need to spend their taxes on. “My strong view is that if we want to gain ground on climate, we have to gain ground on nature and the environment, and we have to bring that to every community in this country.”

Polls of voting intention suggest McMahon’s desire to speak to voters across the rural-urban divide could meet receptive ears. A Survation poll last year found that the traditional split was breaking down, with the Tory lead falling to just 2 points from 17 in rural counties. “Such shifts in support would put constituencies such as Harrogate and Knaresborough, Carlisle and a slew of Cornish locales into contention, to the benefit of the Lib Dems and Labour,” wrote Ben Walker.

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Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, is also pledging the support of the Treasury. Under Sunak’s oversight in recent years, the department has left many green Tory promises hamstrung through lack of funding, but Reeves is adamant that timely climate action is not just the right thing for the environment but the economy. “Delaying action on climate by a decade doubles cost of getting there: if we get to clean power by 2030, we will have cheaper energy bills and be less reliant on Putin and other regimes,” she said. There would also be new jobs to celebrate if the UK was quick to act, she claimed: “Green hydrogen, green steel – some country is going to be the leader in these. Why shouldn’t it be Britain?”

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The pay-off for Labour of its green ambition could be considerable. The forum’s first report found that voters responded better to clips of Keir Starmer when he talked about climate change than other issues. Can Labour fulfil its green ambitions once in power? Well, the party has done it before, Barbara Young, the Labour peer and chairwoman of the Woodland Trust, told the launch audience, thanks to extensive preparation of legislation before the 1997 election and a white paper on the environment. “We have an open goal on that one because the Tories have forgotten,” she said. “They don’t seem to understand what their polls are telling them.”

[See also: The legislative battles to watch in 2023]