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Conference diary: Labour’s sunny spells

BrightonGreen Alliance’s roving diarist of the party conference season, Alastair Harper, gives his view from the Labour conference in Brighton. It first appeared on BusinessGreen.

I am by the beach in perfect weather and this has been my office for the past few days. In between stuffy roundtables on the subject of the energy gap, people are swimming in the sea.

It is hard not to feel optimistic about all things but, as we say, you can’t confuse weather with the climate. So how is the political climate for the Labour Party on green? After yesterday’s leader’s speech I think that it’s also hotting up. Whether you think Labour will form the next government, whether you like his ideas or not, Ed Miliband has put the environment back into British political discourse.

Last year, apparently, Ed ‘forgot’ to mention climate change in his leader’s speech. Even when not forgotten, others have treated climate change as if it was Voldemort: an obvious and perilous threat to all we hold dear, which must never be mentioned. This year, Miliband broke the spell and turned a necessity into a virtue, connecting the need to tackle climate change with both the benefits of growth and as a risk to the cost of living. He committed to creating a million new green jobs and a million new low carbon homes. He showed how everyday problems came from environmental risk and, most importantly, he had environmental solutions.

It is a theme that has been repeated by all the key frontbenchers. To the conference, Hilary Benn made clear that Labour’s 200,000 homes a year push would tackle the issues also raised by Green Alliance’s new green social democracy pamphlet on housing. That is, we don’t just need to build homes but communities as well.

Ed Balls again asserted in his conference speech that the green economy matters to economic recovery. Chuka Umunna has been, for the first time, ubiquitous at green economy fringes and made clear that his approach to an industrial policy would try and accelerate the growth of the green sector. He argued that responding to climate change is an electoral asset, particularly for his leader’s record.

Labour is no longer quiet on green, but how will it deliver its ambition? The collective view of the UK’s main environmental groups was that Labour lacked a programme for government, particularly one that connected environmental ambition with policies people saw as part of their lives. A cascade of announcements at this conference means that there is now more policy to chew on. All political parties have to have populist policies to tackle energy bills, but what’s the link between freezing energy prices and decarbonising our power sector? It is possible, but the route through is difficult and Labour’s way has not yet been made clear.

But most striking from this week is a risk of a disconnect between the intent of policies and the methods. One Nation Labour hasn’t really spelled out how it will govern in a more involving, less centralised, way than New Labour. The ‘people and place’ standard bearer Jon Cruddas seems to have gone very quiet. Instead, the Labour leadership’s main response to its big policy challenges appears to be to set up reviews led by (male) establishment figures to report on a central government policy solution. We’ve had an infrastructure review led by Sir John Armitt, now we’ll have a housing review led by Sir Michael Lyons, and another to follow if Labour gets into power with the Energy Security Board. This gives politicians space and outsider legitimacy but, if it only results in proposals from new technocratic institutions and doesn’t increase public participation in decisions, they all risk failure.

A Sir John Armitt can argue the multiplier effect benefits of a new railway line but, as we are seeing with HS2, if the people of the shires have had no engagement in what cuts through their community, they will fight it. The nation knows we need housing, low carbon energy and public transport, but people will always need involvement in how it is done to them in their own area if they are to support it within their community.

Writing as someone very keen for these things, I know the worst approach would be to wish away local concerns about impact because an independent report said it shouldn’t matter. They can be involved in making it happen from the start, or they can disrupt and potentially derail what the great and good have decided at the end.

Targets don’t build houses and new estates don’t necessarily lead to new communities. It’s patient discussion, public engagement and sharing responsibility which achieves results. Labour has shown at this conference that it is serious across the shadow cabinet table about the green economy. It now needs to show that the public is part of its big plans.

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Alastair joined Green Alliance in January 2012 as the senior policy adviser leading Green Alliance's Political Leadership theme. He manages the Climate Leadership Programme for MPs and joint advocacy work with the NGO community.

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