Labour’s green opportunity

Ahead of the 'Green Labour and Popular Environmentalism' event taking place later this week, Natan Doron of the Fabian Society writes on the place for green ideas in Labour's Policy Review. 

New Labour, in government, endlessly preached about the measures being put in place to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions. Reading such New Labour climate commitments now, there is a strong sense that some in the party saw climate change as if it were just another problem that could be confidently managed by technocratic solutions. This was of course a time when all the main political parties were falling over each other to demonstrate their commitment to fighting climate change. Our prime minster famously went to the trouble of hugging a husky just to convince voters unsure about the Conservative Party brand. Fast forward to 2012 and things are very different. The chancellor George Osborne acts as climate sceptic in chief and the greener-than-thou days of the prime minister are but a distant memory. We are told that this is because the public no longer care. 

This is a misreading of public attitudes data. Not only can ‘going green’ win votes, the landscape of electoral politics is such that green credentials could be of vital importance to the next election.

Recent Fabian polling has demonstrated that the majority of voters support the low-carbon economy and that this is especially true for swing voters. Furthermore, the Conservative swing vote is far ‘greener’ than the Conservative core vote. And it is exactly this swing vote that David Cameron must reach out to in order to increase on the vote share that failed to secure him a majority in 2010. If Conservative Party strategists think that being tougher on immigration, tougher on welfare, more anti-Europe and more anti-environment than last time around, this data proves them to be taking a huge risk.

For Labour, it is the enthusiasm of the group that has joined since 2010 – many of them former Liberal Democrat voters – for the green economy that presents this agenda as such a golden opportunity. If Labour is going to consolidate its current poll lead, a greater commitment to fighting climate change could be key.

But the kinds of policies that would accompany the greening of the Labour policy review are also popular with the majority of voters. We asked a survey of 1600+ UK voters how positive they’d feel towards a party proposing the following policies and the results are encouraging for those planning the Labour manifesto:

Policy idea Total POSITIVE towards a party proposing this policy Total NEGATIVE towards a party proposing this policy
Cracking down on landlords who rent poorly insulated properties that push up fuel bills 67% 5%
An energy efficient house-building programme, to improve the UK housing stock to save energy and bring fuel bills down 75% 1%
Windfall tax on energy companies to fund investment in renewable energy 59% 8%
Commit to the majority of the UK’s electricity coming from renewable sources by 2030 54% 10%

As the above data demonstrates, Labour can announce some eye-catching policies that would both reach out to broad groups of the electorate whilst also demonstrating credible environmental credentials.

Of course, Labour has important and pressing reasons to scale up the level of activity on the environment beyond electoral strategy. In the most recent edition of the Fabian review (where you can also see more in depth polling data), Michael Jacobs explains the macroeconomic case in brilliant detail whilst Ruth Davis also illustrates how the politics of place ingrained in the One Nation Labour approach suggest a deep green and locally focused approach to government.

For those of us who have been craving a more serious consideration of the environment in Labour policy, 2013 could prove a decisive turning point.

Natan Doron is Senior Researcher at the Fabian Society. He speaks alongside shadow minister for energy and climate change Caroline Flint at ‘Green Labour – a popular environmentalism’ as part of Labour’s policy review at the House of Commons on 22nd January. Details can be found here

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