Conference diary: does Labour do green?

Alastair Harper is Green Alliance’s senior policy adviser on Political Leadership and, while the season is with us, roving party conference diarist.

Here his is first posting from the Labour’s conference in Manchester, first published on Business Green.

Manchester is a Labour city. Ever since the city became a metropolitan borough council in 1974, it’s been controlled by Labour. Its MPs are Labour, and always have been. The ring of steel around the conference elite is smaller than when the Conservatives were here last year; the main hotel bar and the town hall, where the big New Statesman party was held, are both outside the barriers. Clearly, Labour and Manchester trust each other.

But can we trust Labour with the environment? The party certainly says so.

There’s been a strong green speech by Caroline Flint on how Labour “got” the science and acted. Maria Eagle followed her with good words on clean transport. I spoke last night to several prominent members, from Tom Watson to David Miliband, Jon Cruddas to Alastair Campbell. All of them, impressively, know their onions when it comes to the Energy Bill and the wider contemporary debate around green growth. They all see it as both a huge need and a grand opportunity – and they all felt that not enough was being said about it.

During RSPB’s Environmental Question Time, Melanie Smallman of SERA, Labour’s environment group, was asked whether Labour should challenge an unenthusiastic public attitude towards the environment. She rejected the question, recalling a friend running as a Labour candidate who said something along these lines: green stuff is all well and good, but it means nothing to the public. When Melanie went canvassing for her friend she found every house adorned with solar panels. “Green stuff” matters to people, if only the candidate would speak about it.

There has been some discussion over the weekend on whether the Shadow Chancellor is doing enough to challenge Osborne on the environment and the green economy. Ahead of his speech on Monday, whispers started to circulate, suggesting that Balls would have a green frame. Business groups, bloggers and some journalists were given the wink that the content would be there – not as a headline, but as an idea embedded into his vision for the future. The argument seeming to be that you don’t need to speak about an idea if it is present in everything you want to do.

One conversation told me to expect a speech which fundamentally questioned the future we want for the economy. There were no backdrops of turbines, or green tree logos for the party, but Balls wanted to ask a big question; whether recovery from recession is a repair job for business as usual, or an opportunity to change things fundamentally.

What did we get? Some enthusiasm for China’s roads and airports – an odd choice when China is doing so much low carbon. And I do think that if something is so important, it’s good to name it. But, positively, the speech had a basic understanding that the green economy is the only reasonable future for the UK.

Balls called on Britain to “lead the world in delivering clean, de-carbonised energy and green jobs”. And provided an acknowledgement that the UK government will have to “protect our country from rising sea levels and exceptional rainfall”.

The headline capitals may not be green, but that makes it all the more striking that any serious discussion of the economic future of this country has to be shaped by it.

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