Anticipating significant trends is a compulsive but risky habit. Last year I forecasted three, and whilst two did come good, one was spectacularly wrong. The Conservative Party did not follow a centrist strategy and did not reassert its support for a green economy. The challenge to the UK’s low carbon leadership which this reflects makes prediction harder than usual but, undaunted, I offer three more for the coming year:
1. Civic activism continues to grow
Big Society may be dead as a political programme, but civic activism is alive and kicking. A combination of budget cuts and new powers is stimulating much greater assertiveness from our big cities. It won’t always be pretty, as the example of Newcastle cutting all of its arts funding shows, but there are many positive initiatives emerging from the chaos of localism. Newcastle City Council may be cutting its revenue budget by £90 million but, working with neighbouring local authorities, it is setting up a similar size infrastructure fund which includes capital investment in a low carbon enterprise zone and a centre for offshore renewable engineering. Somewhat surprisingly the city’s residents placed maintaining high ‘clean and green standards’ as a higher priority than housing or safe neighbourhoods in a recent survey, so the council has a mandate for its green enterprise. Green Alliance’s survey of city deals suggests that many other big cities are now using green enterprise as a means to mobilise investment and generate long term returns. Manchester has created a joint venture with the Green Investment Bank, and Birmingham has set up a Green Deal financing initiative.
As we revealed in 2011, austerity led some local authorities to drop explicit climate action programmes, but the big cities are now showing an appetite for new entrepreneurial activity around green that is as much about ‘winning our share’ as ‘doing our bit’.
2. Europe becomes interesting again for low carbon policy
After a year of high stakes negotiations on UK energy policy in 2012, some of the most interesting politics will shift to Europe in 2013. For the first time since 2007, when Tony Blair and Angela Merkel brokered the 2020 climate package, the EU will have a big influence on UK energy policy. In March the Commission will launch a draft climate package for 2030 which will determine European energy policy and its position in UN negotiations for many years to come. Decisions won’t be finalised until 2014 or 2015, but negotiations will start as soon as the Commission green paper is launched, and the UK government is expected decide its position by the spring.
This sets up a fascinating dynamic because it overlaps with the review of the UK’s fourth carbon budget which comes to a head in 2014. Received wisdom is that a Treasury led campaign will attempt to unpick it but, if the Commission launches an ambitious package and wins the support of Germany, it will change the terms of engagement, since the UK’s fourth carbonbudget may then align to the new 2030 commitments of all member states. If this happens everyone, including the Treasury, should be congratulated for their foresight and patience.
But as with all rosy pictures the reality will be more complicated. The Commission may flunk it and produced a weak package, the German elections in autumn 2013 will delay the point at which it can rally support, and internal divisions may result in the UK government playing a very minimal role in influencing the outcome.
3. Political parties lay the foundations for the next government
The Opposition always set the pace in the race for new ideas and programmes for the next government, and this year we’ll see the Labour Party finally step up a gear. In 2013 the party will lay down the framework for the more detailed policy which will emerge in 2014. The coming year will therefore determine whether a greener economy is built into the foundations the parties are laying down for the next government.
Much of this thinking will be invisible, but two initiatives will emerge into the public sphere and tell us much about where British politics is likely to go next, irrespective of whether Labour gets back into power. The policy review by Jon Cruddas and Andrew Adonis will set out the big picture for how a strategic state with less money can ‘rebuild Britain’, with a strong emphasis on supply side reform. The Armitt review of infrastructure, set up by Ed Balls, is likely to lay out the case for a new public institution to oversee Britain’s infrastructure. Using green means to achieve social democratic ends is likely to feature in the Cruddas/Adonis review, but big questions remain about whether the Armitt review will differentiate between low and high carbon infrastructure.
The LibDem manifesto process is already underway, and a ‘green book’ which will be published at their spring conference should add momentum. The challenge for green LibDems is to break out of the energy policy silo and to influence the party’s economic programme.
The Conservatives don’t yet have a clear manifesto development process, although the appointment of Linton Crosby as election strategist will bring great discipline to their election planning. Green issues currently feature as a negative wedge issue amongst party strategists, but the assumption that this will work with swing voters has not yet been tested. It’s also clear that a number of backbenchers in marginal constituencies are unwilling to give up on a conservative green narrative. Appearing before the Liaison Committee in December, David Cameron seemed to be rehearsing the conservative case for green growth, and the 2020 group of conservative MPs recently reinforced this theme. How these issues play out in the Conservative election strategy is likely to depend on focus group feedback in marginal constituencies, whether Labour raises the bar on a greener economy and the pressure pro-climate action modernisers exert on the party leadership.
Green Alliance will be active in all these areas and more. I’ll be writing a separate blog outlining our plans for the year.