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Who in Labour gets climate and nature?

To achieve Keir Starmer’s mission for sustained economic growth, the party must put nature at its core.

By India Bourke

At an NGO-led Save Our Wild Isles event in Westminster recently, green experts I spoke to were anxious about the state of Labour’s messaging on the environment

There were positive plans were coming out of Ed Miliband’s shadow climate team. But leading members of the front bench have, at times, portrayed climate action as at odds with the party’s fiscal rules. On nature, meanwhile, the shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon has been a strong and eloquent advocate for action on water quality and access to nature (including promising a right to roam act), but he has been less vocal about deeper, structural reforms needed on farming and land use – reforms that would ensure there is sufficient nature left to experience in the first place.

How and when, environmental campaigners at the event wanted to know, would Labour make clear that the climate and nature crises are inextricably linked? Or explain that the foundation of all future security – from economic prosperity to health to social justice – depends on addressing the overarching threat of eco-crisis?

However, in a speech for an event held by the think tank Green Alliance last Thursday (13 July), the shadow climate secretary Ed Miliband began to put some of these fears to rest by channeling his Labour-heavyweight status. The 53-year-old articulated how for Britain to truly secure its future, there must be a seismic shift in cross-government commitment on nature.

“Nature is not only threatened by climate change, it is integral to the solution,” stressed Miliband, who midwifed the world’s first-ever legally binding Climate Change Act in 2008. “Every department in a Labour government must be a climate and nature department. That’s why we say we have to apply a net zero and nature test to all of our policies… We want the most ambitious targets we can get through for habitat creation, coupled with a credible plan to deliver them.”

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“What does that mean?” he continued. “It is about protecting existing things like past carbon stores in our peatlands and committing to restoring them at scale; it is about new woodland creation to draw down carbon, and unleashing the potential of blue carbon on our coasts… Because restoring nature is essential to prevent climate disaster. And it is also the way we give people better lives.”

At yesterday’s launch of the Nature 2030 campaign (18 July), a five-point environmental restoration plan championed by around 80 NGOs, Alex Sobel, Labour’s shadow minister for nature recovery and domestic environment, repeated this emphasis on all government actions being “nature positive”. He also restated a point made by McMahon at the Wild Isles event: that nature would be “core” to Labour’s £28bn a year green prosperity plan spending.

In a month where Europe is sweltering in the grip of ever-intensifying heat, and headlines around the world are dominated by climate-linked disasters, Labour’s holistic call for action is timely. Acting on this good intent, however, will require a whole-government commitment, rather than the siloed thinking that bedevils the current administration. 

[See also: Summer at the end of the world]

The Conservative’s existing net zero strategy does not, for instance, yet have a dedicated, cross-government plan to decarbonise agriculture and other land use. With over 70 per cent of UK land given over to food and farming, and farms accounting for around a tenth of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, the independent Climate Change Committee has warned that the need for a “coherent, strategic approach to coordinated policy” in this area “is vital”.

A coordinated approach is something that Starmer’s Labour has promoted for a while, Sobel reminded the audience at Tuesday’s event. Ever since the leader’s 2021 conference speech, a “net zero test” across “everything we do in government” has been promised. This has been expanded, by both Miliband and Sobel, to include nature too. 

But actually implementing that joined-up thinking is another matter. And as Ed Miliband deepens his commitment, others are pushing back. In an attack video tweeted by the Energy Security Secretary Grant Shapps this week, Miliband’s past words of support for Extinction Rebellion are accompanied by some of the most extreme examples of the group’s formerly disruptive tactics. “Ed Miliband explains why Labour supports the criminal eco mob,” Shapps added, to land the jab.

Within Labour, too, there is unease. Keir Starmer has denied saying, during a recent shadow cabinet meeting, that he “hates tree-huggers”. Yet the very fact that a source quoted him as saying it to the Sunday Times suggests there are some within the party who’d seek to undermine Miliband’s case for change, or Starmer’s commitment to climate action.

What is needed now, says Richard Benwell, CEO of the Wildlife and Countryside Link, which launched the Nature 2030 campaign, is for Starmer himself “to follow Miliband and Sobel in acknowledging that nature protection isn’t an obstacle to social justice and economic prosperity – it’s fundamental”. He could demonstrate this by including commitments to restore nature by the end of the next parliament via new public spending, private-sector regulation, land management, green jobs and environmental rights. “The reward will be a stronger NHS and better public health, a more equitable society, and business at the forefront of the next economic revolution.”

Joining up climate and nature policy and ensuring its integration across government will require changing the siloed way in which government departments are run. But there are some in the Parliamentary Labour Party and beyond who understand this. New Statesman Spotlight recently asked the UK’s leading green groups and think tanks to suggest which Labour figures truly get that the nature crisis is not separate from the climate crisis, or indeed ambitions for economic growth. Britain’s politics of nature arguably now rest on their voices – and others like them – being raised and amplified.

[See also: Labour is trying to have it both ways on the climate – will it work?]

The shadow ministers

Working alongside Miliband and Jim McMahon are their teams of shadow ministers. For the latter’s environment department (Defra), this includes Alex Sobel, Daniel Zeichner and Ruth Jones. Of these, Sobel was recently described by Richard Benwell as having a “Hermione Granger-style time-turner because he is indefatigable in turning up to almost every environment event”. 

Kerry McCarthy, shadow minister for climate change in Miliband’s team, while recently focused on the Energy Bill, is also a long-term champion of environmental policy. Her past experience as the shadow Defra secretary of state has reportedly given her a depth of cross-government knowledge, and she has been, according to Benwell, a “tireless and tenacious” advocate for nature.

Alan Whitehead is seen as solid and reliable on the energy grid, as is Matthew Pennycook on housing and Louise Haigh, shadow secretary of state for transport, which will be another important area to decarbonise. Luke Pollard, the shadow minister for the armed forces and a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the environment, has recently called out the government for feeding voters “a diet of spin and greenwash”, stressing that increasingly extreme weather must be a “wake-up call” for governments.

[See also: The new shadow environment secretary faces a “key test for Labour”]

The advisers

Inside Miliband’s team especially, the special advisers Jonty Leibowitz, Tobias Garnett and Eleanor Salter have all been pushing strong policy – with Salter particularly focused on integrating nature into the climate offer. Her influence is seen to be key.

The lords

Despite having a huge brief, stretching from animal welfare to planning reform, Sue Hayman, a shadow Defra spokesperson, has been pushing in the Lords. She has been ably supported by the Greens’ Jenny Jones.

Barbara Young is a vice-chair of the all-party environment group and sits on the House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee. She is a particular advocate for a land-use framework to effectively manage the increasing pressures on land. Des Browne has also been noted for his efforts to secure a ban on lead ammunition, and his promotion of the ways in which thriving nature improves public health.

The past secretary of state

Hilary Benn served as the environment secretary under Gordon Brown from 2007-10, and retains an impressive knowledge of his former brief. For example, he co-chaired the think tank IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission. His legacy includes the creation of the South Downs National Park, and his experience of managing the challenges of a government department could prove invaluable.

[See also: What to expect from Angela Rayner as shadow levelling up secretary]

The back-bench MPs

There are numerous champions of climate and nature on Labour’s back benches, but Clive Lewis and Olivia Blake deserve special mention. Blake has been outspoken on the need for climate justice as well as upland issues, serving as a shadow minister for nature, water and flooding and, more recently, for climate change and net zero, before stepping back for personal reasons. Lewis too has been a long-time supporter of the Green New Deal legislation, together with the Greens’ Caroline Lucas, and pressed the need for climate action to be at the heart of a manifesto message. Nadia Whittome has also used her back-bench flexibility to pursue ambitious climate thinking, and has been an advocate for climate education

Labour in Wales

The Welsh government’s ambitious climate programmes offer a future Labour government many helpful test-cases. The First Minister and Welsh Labour leader Mark Drakeford has been championing these – in particular a publicly-owned energy company to return renewable energy profits to the people of Wales, and a national forest. 

Labour Climate and Environment Forum (LCEF)

An honourable mention should also go to Paul McNamee, who earlier this year launched the LCEF, with the specific intention of strengthening ambition on both nature and climate across the movement.

The prospective parliamentary candidates

Of the green voices among Labour’s potential parliamentary candidates, ones to watch include: Miatta Fahnbulleh, chief executive of the New Economics Foundation; Polly Billington, chief executive of the UK100 network on climate action; Catherine Fookes, director of the Women’s Equality Network Wales and formerly a campaigner at the Sustain alliance for food and farming; and Sarah Sackman, a barrister who specialises in public and environmental law.

[See also: A world on fire]

There are many more who have made important contributions that haven’t made this list. Perhaps soon, nature and climate action will be so ingrained across the Labour Party’s thinking that such a list becomes redundant.

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