Labour conference: gauging the political weather

Brighton is renowned for its tolerant atmosphere, which extends to suffering the arrival of the country’s political classes for conference season each autumn. Yet this year, as an embattled Labour Party met for what is almost certainly its last conference whilst in power, it seemed that even Brighton had grown tired of its guests. ‘Labour is old news in Brighton’ declared a twenty-foot high hoarding for the Greens, cheekily installed on the main route party delegates were taking to the convention hall. An exhausted-looking Brown, fashioned out of newspaper cuttings, scowled down at the hordes of indifferent daytrippers enjoying the seaside sunshine.

Brown old news

This is, after all, the city which gave a third of its votes to the Green Party in the recent European elections, and which could yet elect the country’s first Green MP, Caroline Lucas. What I wanted to know was this: Labour may have written off the seat of Brighton Pavilion, but how far would it seek to capitalise on the green vote in constituencies across the country? Armed with a list of the climate change fringe events taking place at conference, I embarked on my game of Hunt-Ed-Miliband.

Reluctantly leaving the sunny seafront, I ducked into a fringe workshop where the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change was outlining his vision. ‘If Martin Luther King had said, ‘I have a nightmare’, rather than ‘I have a dream’, then few would have followed him,’ opened Ed, in a now-familiar dig at the supposed pessimism of environmental campaigners. ‘We have to outline a positive vision of a low-carbon future, not just talk about disaster management.’

Sure, but what did that look like to him? I was keen to hear how he thought climate policies could be combined with Labour values. On this Miliband offered some interesting hints as to how the party may frame a narrative on climate change in its next manifesto, which he is tasked with writing. He spoke of allying policies for decarbonising our economy with the provision of jobs, improving people’s health, guaranteeing energy security, and Labour’s traditional interest in redistribution. By casting green policies as a way to improve people’s overall quality of life, with the added benefit of saving the climate, he argued, you appeal to a much broader spectrum of voters. Some of Miliband’s comments tantalisingly suggested that he has absorbed the climate movement’s debates around a Green New Deal and Just Transition: the Vestas factory closure, he said, had brought home to him the employment case for building a national renewables industry.

Labour had to do better, Miliband declared, at showing decarbonisation policies were fair. He raised the example of personal carbon allowances, agreeing with Polly Toynbee’s stance that they could be an instrument of redistribution, but arguing that in the near-term they were impracticable. (‘Don’t they remind you a bit of Big Brother?’ asked one audience member. ‘Yes, my big brother,’ quipped Ed, referring to David Miliband’s endorsement of PCAs when he was Environment Minister.) Even so, he acknowledged that a personal allowance approach might be feasible – and highly equitable – when treating aviation emissions, although he reiterated his favourite riposte to the anti-flying lobby: ‘Who wants to go back to 1974 levels of flying?’ And in the case of domestic electricity use, he stated, DECC were looking at introducing rising block tariffs, but questions remained around their impact on fuel poverty.

What about the matter of ownership? Ed was not about to call for the renationalisation of the energy industry, but it was a recurrent theme at fringe events throughout the week. Dr Hugh Compston, reader in politics at the University of Cardiff, made a convincing case for taking certain segments of the energy market – such as the nascent CCS and marine power industries – into public ownership so as to ensure rapid deployment and high levels of R&D spending. Lord Hunt, junior minister at DECC, was asked why Vestas had not been nationalised; he fudged his answer, of course, but pledged he was committed to building a native UK supply chain for the wind industry.

So far, so good. But Ministers were careful never to give away any specific manifesto commitments, and as I went from seminar to seminar, I realised that I was in danger of reading too much into the vague conference banter. Where was the beef? Groups like Compass and Worker’s Climate Action dream of a future Red-Green alliance, a joining of the ecology and labour movements to deliver both jobs and climate protection – shades of which emerged in Schroeder’s Germany and are now becoming common currency in Obama’s America. But apart from the promise of ten thousand new green internships in Gordon Brown’s conference speech on Tuesday, this isn’t yet a theme that Labour has convincingly championed. Red plus green does not, in this instance, make Brown.

A decade ago, the idea of a ‘progressive coalition’ between Labour and the Liberal Democrats exercised thinkers on the centre-left. Perhaps a Red-Green electoral coalition could one day develop in Britain, in the mould of Germany’s SDP-Die Grüne? Perhaps. With electoral reform now finally on the cards and the Greens increasing the size of their vote with each election, it’s not impossible. But as with the shelving of the Lib-Lab pact and vacillations over proportional representation, interests will always trump ideas when it comes to elections. This much was obvious when Ed Balls and Caroline Lucas set about arguing at a fringe seminar over why Brighton Council’s Greens had rejected a coalition with Labour, in so doing handing control to the Tories.

And what, indeed, of the Tories? Their gaping lead in the polls of course hung heavily over the conference. They are even ahead on the environment, with a recent poll naming the Conservatives as the best party for tackling the issue, with the Liberal Democrats second and Labour languishing in third place. At the Fabian event Who are the new Tories?, I asked a panel of pundits from across the centre-right: Are the new Tories a green party, or will Cameron’s professed interest in the environment be forgotten in office? The replies were not wholly reassuring. Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome stated that ‘Conservatives do care about the environment – maybe not about climate change, but the environment.’ Whilst the party leadership were totally sold on the importance of tackling global warming, he said, the rank-and-file were not so convinced (and nor, for that matter, was he). There was a coming ‘energy crisis’, he argued, that would see the Conservatives have to make tough decisions between prioritising decarbonisation and keeping the lights on.

It seems unlikely that any of the main parties will prioritise climate change to the extent that is needed at next May’s General Election. The debates about public sector cuts and the economy, stupid, look set to run for quite some time yet; and the power of the British press to decide the issues for an election campaign remains formidable (just look at the Sun’s recent defection from Labour). But regardless of what the parties promise in their manifestos and what headlines are written between now and next spring, green groups are already starting to whisper about ways of pushing climate up the agenda. The 2005 election was a disaster for climate change, in that it received almost no airtime, despite rising voter concern about the issue. (For a brilliant New Statesman article about this, see here.) The big green NGOs are determined this should not be repeated in 2010, and they have some radical ideas about how it could be very different this time.

And finally: to close on a lighter note. No conference would be complete without intrigue and speculation, and climate campaigners are as susceptible as the next person. So I sat in a pub one night with a set of leading green policymakers and pundits and exchanged gossipy predictions over a pint. Some were outlandish, some very believable – a selection are reproduced below. Just remember that, if any of them come true, you heard it here first:

  • Ed Miliband will become Labour leader, perhaps after Alan Johnson performs the role of caretaker leader following the departure of Brown. Ed will take the climate fight to the Tories, in a way that few other prospective Labour leaders could
  • Caroline Lucas will take Brighton to become the UK’s first Green MP, but Tony Juniper won’t win in Cambridge
  • Zac Goldsmith will become Britain’s second Green MP. He will be elected as a Conservative, but will cross the floor in a principled stand over nuclear power
  • The Conservatives will axe the Sustainable Development Commission, and merge the Energy Savings Trust with the Carbon Trust (more on which in a future post)
  • There will be an almighty bust-up within Tory ranks between Cameroonian greens on the one hand, and on the other, a seething alliance of climate deniers, the anti-wind lobby, free-market fanatics and reactionary backwoodsmen…

One Response

  1. eric

    Ed Miliband for leader sounds plausible. ‘He’s played a very clever game’ said one informed westminster person to me a few days ago.