Conference diary: where now for green conservatism?

6217321664_fdb5fc1678_bIn his latest post from the party conferences,  Green Alliance’s  Alastair Harper reports from Manchester. This piece first appeared on BusinessGreen.

There’s something surreal about the way the parties shuffle the same cities for their annual conferences. Last night, I sat in on a reception for a right-of-centre think tank, filled with young people chatting earnestly about the perils of welfare reliance and how innovation was being shackled by government regulation. In exactly the same room last year, I watched another large group of young people chatting earnestly about the perils of cuts to essential services and how growth was being limited due to lack of government stimulus investment. Surreal, but also a useful lab setting in which to compare the parties.

Party conferences also take the same order: Lib Dems, Labour, Conservative. This normally doesn’t make a great deal of difference, but this year Ed Miliband’s energy proposals have put the Conservatives in an interesting place. How would they respond? What would be their populist gesture in return?

Many usual suspects have sought to use Miliband’s energy bill freeze to encourage the Conservatives to go for the scalp of ‘green subsidy’. The likes of Fraser Nelson and Matthew Sinclair have been clamouring for this from the fringe panels over the last couple of days. The front cover of some of the weekend’s newspapers claimed it was coming.

In the end, the chancellor’s gameplan for his speech was not going to be derailed by the opposition. He largely stuck to his own narrative: celebrating the first whiffs of recovery, a few tax bonuses for hard-working people and an attempt to show he was a sensible, centre ground politician taking economic management seriously. That, I was told, was their intention going up to Manchester: no headline-grabbing policy cooked up in a couple of days in response to Miliband. They have 18 months to develop a robust answer to the bills challenge, and won’t rush out something half-baked. The closest Osborne got to gimmickry was the freezing of fuel duty.

However, there is still a risk, being much debated at the conference, that the Conservatives will go for policies that actively undermine the green economy. The CBI criticised the chancellor’s lack of support for renewables in their response to his speech  and the prime minister remains in a complicated place, having pinned his colours to the mast of shale, claiming an exploratory process, still a decade from delivery, will reduce bills.

So how does the Conservative Party navigate the need to be active on bills with the need to deliver big energy investment? Luckily for them, some of their brightest have already plotted out the answer. This week Green Alliance published the last of three collections of essays from the three political traditions. The pamphlet on green conservatism focuses on how to protect the environment through open markets. In it, a series of independent experts and conservative thinkers show how to challenge and break up the dominance of the Big Six through competition and low carbon innovation. For them, a market is there for the consumer, not the incumbents, and the best way of breaking up the dominance of a few is through disruptive low carbon technology and encouraging new businesses into the market. If the ministers want to promote energy investment without looking like the Rt Hon Member for Centrica, then this is the way.

If he wants to find a way back to being an environmental leader while delivering our energy needs, David Cameron should read the foreword by his predecessor Michael Howard, who writes that “the impact of climate change presents the challenge of how to deal with this practical problem in a way that allows us to prosper.” No drama, no huskies, but perhaps a mandate to do energy saving sensibly.

Green conservatism in 2013 is very different to 2008’s, and potentially richer in impact. Less focused on a ‘vote blue go green ‘ grand claim, and more focused on the common sense case for doing good. Howard links the needs to deliver national infrastructure with the need to be “custodians of our planet and our special places.” For him, the environment is not a peripheral issue, but “the bill through the letterbox and the view through the window.” Serious figures from within the Conservative Party are developing an alternate approach to bills and low carbon investment, quite distinct from Labour’s. They have shown that they can also talk sensibly about climate change even if some ministers choose not to. Cameron has an alternative route to Miliband’s, it uses market reform as a route to greater energy investment, but does it in a Conservative way by emphasising competition and the disruptive power of technology. Let’s hope he uses it.

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