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Labour is trying to have it both ways on the climate – will it work?

Labour are signalling they can be ambitious on climate but cautious on the economy. Young climate-conscious voters may need more.

By India Bourke

“Keir Starmer is famous for nothing if not a degree of flip-flopping,” Caroline Lucas commented in an interview with Spotlight last week. The Green MP was speaking in the wake of the announcement that Labour’s flagship target of investing £28bn a year in the green economy would only be reached midway through its first term in government.

Aside from the political error for Labour of not clearly explaining that £28bn a year would be an average, the clarification is not a disaster at this stage. As green experts have pointed out, an increase in investment is inevitable if policies such as the mass installation of heat pumps are to be supported by a sufficiently prepared workforce. Plus if Starmer uses an upcoming speech to restate his commitment to making Britain a clean energy superpower, it could squash concern that the £28bn target will be ditched entirely. In previous comments on energy and climate, the Labour leader has made green growth the centre of his vision for a revitalised UK.

Labour’s Green Prosperity Plan, of which the £28bn pledge is a part, is a multi-pronged strategy intended to “grow the economy, create jobs, cut energy bills and also reduce emissions”, said Paul McNamee, director of the Labour Climate and Environment Forum. “It’s an industrial strategy approach to kick-start growth and the best way to do that is through green industries, which is where Starmer and Rachel Reeves are focusing.”

Yet Labour’s climate policies are also coming under siege. A plan to stop granting oil and gas licences for the North Sea has received increasingly barbed attacks from Grant Shapps, the Energy Security Secretary, and criticism from major unions. Meanwhile Reeves, the shadow chancellor, has emphasised that economic stability “must come first”, and that her fiscal rules – which include reducing debt as a proportion of GDP – are “non-negotiable”.

Labour’s current climate messaging thus amounts to something of a tight-rope walk. On the one hand the party is positioning itself as the champion of serious climate commitment and Joe Biden-style industrial investment. On the other hand, it also appears to be playing down any sense of radical departure from the economic status quo. Will this balancing act help Labour to gain power at a time of economic strain? Or is it a compromise that could lose them decisive votes?

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To go big on climate or not to go big on climate?

There is a case that an emphasis on economic security is the right electoral approach. Appearing green is not “as big a vote pull as some may think” warns the New Statesman’s polling expert, Ben Walker. Labour needs middle-class young families in particular to turn out to vote for them in greater numbers than ever, he notes, especially in commuter towns in Hertfordshire, north Kent and Yorkshire, and climate action may not be the best way to attract them.

But while Jack Richardson, head of energy and climate at the centre-right think tank Onward, agrees that appearing strong on climate and the environment isn’t necessarily the priority for all voters , he notes that it is growing in importance. Polling for their recent report on why the Conservatives are losing the votes of millennials showed that the environment was a top five issue across all voter age-groups, even if a narrow majority of 25-40-year-olds (56 per cent) said that they preferred gradual change over radical shifts. “It’s not yet clear if a party’s environmental policy will be the priority for younger voters compared to being able to buy a house or public services,” he said. “But having a compelling narrative on the environment and solid policies to back it up looks more and more important with each year. It’d be great to have more research on this.”

[See also: Brits remained “concerned” about climate change despite rising cost of living]

Youth rising

Simply turning the public off the Conservatives is not the same as mobilising voters to turn out for Labour. A fifth of people now pick climate change and the environment as one of their top two concerns, up from only around 8 per cent in 2015, while support for higher taxes and spending has also risen. Moreover, the number of people who didn’t vote at the last general election was larger than the winning party’s majority in most constituencies – and some fear Labour’s caution on its climate messaging could be a mis-step in this respect.

“Labour’s current polling lead is more because the Tories are unpopular than because voters are excited about Labour’s agenda,” noted Leo Barasi, a former pollster and author of The Climate Majority. “Little of what Labour has offered so far has cut through. A major commitment to tackling climate change – something the current Tory party wouldn’t be able to steal, unlike other flagship Labour policies – would tap into the cross-voter alarm about increasing extreme weather and the belief that the Tories haven’t been doing enough, while also demonstrating a commitment to economic growth.”

Engaging climate-conscious young people could be key here. Typically the cohort least likely to turn out at elections, the younger generation has been mobilised by numerous issues since 2019, especially climate change. Non-committal messaging from Labour could thus push those who do vote towards the Greens.

“The Tories should look with concern at Australia and the US, where incumbent governments committed to fossil fuels were deserted en masse by young voters,” advised Greenpeace UK’s joint executive directors, Areeba Hamid and Will McCallum. They also point to the US’s youth-led Sunrise Movement, which reached 3.5 million unique young voters in the 2020 presidential election through voter contact programs, and helped to produce one of the highest turnouts among young people in US electoral history. “If young voters can be mobilised in a manner similar to their Anglophone peers, political parties will ignore them at their peril,” Hamid and McCallum said.

For Dr Ben Bowman, a lecturer in youth justice at Manchester Metropolitan University, the growing anger of Gen Z (in their early 20s and under) at older generations’ failure to address extraction-heavy habits shouldn’t be under-estimated. If Labour sticks to the economic status quo that could simply represent a further entrenchment of wealth among an older demographic, he warns.

“Even if younger voters are not ‘activists’ themselves they have grown up in an absolutely historic wave of contentious politics that takes place on the streets, in the classroom, in the living room and in everyday life. Problems like environmental crisis, police violence, and economic injustice and hardship, haven’t gone away but the Labour Party is making a point of rejecting social movements, slowing down its policies, and using cautious and middle-of-the-road language in a time of enormous intersecting crises. I expect a lot of Gen-Z voters feel disoriented by this disconnection between the urgent crises they are living through and the distinctly boring turn of the party best equipped to handle them.”

Not only the young

It is not just the young that bold climate messaging could energise. Polling shows that older people and non-graduates also think that Labour’s £28bn pledge is credible and deliverable, Barasi notes. “The Loyal Nationals segment – a proxy for Red Wall swing voters in More in Common’s segmentation – are actually very concerned about climate change, and want to see governments dealing with it.”

What they also want, however, Barasi adds, is more detail on what the £28bn will be spent on and what voters will see for it. “They don’t trust politicians and don’t trust big promises.”

“Green growth” can mean many things. Turning Labour’s climate messaging into clear, tangible policies that nurture deeper systemic change will be crucial to winning over both activists and voters. And while Starmer is unlikely to reveal much detail at this stage, notes Chaitanya Kumar from the New Economics Foundation think tank, the party “needs to think about how its climate investment can lead to greater public buy-in for more ambitious action down the line. That will only be possible when policy delivers good quality jobs and greater well-being across the country.”

[See also: Seven ways to make leaders act on climate change]

A climate plan for the public, by the public?

Achieving this will mean not just promising investment in green jobs and industry, but also creating robust public institutions that can co-ordinate green investment, such as Great British Energy and the proposed National Wealth Fund, argues a new report from the think tank Common Wealth. The UK’s structural underinvestment, economic stagnation and regional inequality all make it unwise to leave co-ordination of the green transition up to market forces, the report notes. Public-led investment and co-ordination, senior researcher Melanie Brusseler explains, would be more effective, more economically stable and would foster greater democratisation in the economy, “which is both an end in itself and a critical means for building political support for decarbonisation”.

Labour’s emphasis on green jobs and green growth is therefore a welcome start, but must now be expanded upon to galvanise both the economy and the electorate. The £28bn a year investment still falls short of the £50bn the independent Climate Change Committee advised was necessary in its Sixth Carbon Budget. And prioritising self-imposed borrowing rules creates a sense of false choice between climate and economy – one that could turn off the very voters they need to turn out. 

“As I like to say, there is no economy on a dead planet,” the American climate scientist Michael Mann told Spotlight. “And the cost of climate inaction to the economy is far greater than any cost (I wouldn’t even call it ‘cost’, but ‘investment’) of action.”

[See also: Net zero jobs growth “not guaranteed”, says Climate Change Committee]

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