Conservatives need new climate policies to attract young voters
This post is by Sam Hall, senior research fellow at Bright Blue
One of the most striking features of the government’s recently published Clean growth strategy is its unashamed embrace of the political and economic opportunity of decarbonisation. The opening pages praise the UK’s world-leading record on climate action: since 1990, the UK has cut its greenhouse gas emissions faster, at the same time as achieving higher per-capita economic growth, than the rest of the G7.
This more optimistic rhetoric is undoubtedly due, in part, to the more favourable economics. First, the falling costs of solar, wind and battery storage have dramatically reduced the price of emission reduction. Second, with the return of industrial strategy to Whitehall, there is a renewed desire to cement and develop the UK’s nascent low carbon economic strengths, particularly in offshore wind and green finance.
But another more political factor is ministers’ increasing awareness of younger voters’ enthusiasm for policies that tackle climate change. Following the recent loss of their parliamentary majority, Conservatives have been thinking hard about how to improve their appeal among younger voters. Indeed, the topic dominated their recent party conference in Manchester. Polling studies show that age was the best predictor of voting intention at the last general election and that only among voters aged over 47 did the Conservatives edge ahead of Labour.
Climate change is the top issue for 18 to 28 year olds
Recent polling, commissioned by Bright Blue, of younger voters reinforces the popularity of climate policies with this demographic. After health, climate change is the second most commonly chosen policy issue that under 40s think senior politicians do not discuss enough and want to hear them discuss more. Among 18 to 28 year olds, it comes top.
The Conservatives are starting from a poor position in terms of how younger voters perceive their climate policies. Nearly half of under 40s (45 per cent) declined to pick an adjective to describe their policies, as they did not know enough. Of the adjectives that were chosen, the most popular were all negative: weak (30 per cent), inadequate (29 per cent) and damaging (14 per cent).
We also tested whether under 40s would feel proud or embarrassed voting for a political party that adopted nine particular policies on issues that are typically associated with younger voters. The most popular policy, which 83 per cent of under 40s would be proud of, was generating more electricity from renewables like wind and solar.
New ideas on clean growth
This was the political context for Bright Blue’s recent Green conservatism conference, where a range of centre right politicians, experts and industry practitioners gathered to discuss and champion new conservative ideas for tackling climate change. Two points, in particular, stood out from the day’s energy debates that could enable to capitalise on the economic and political opportunity for clean growth.
The first concerns the concept of security of supply. Developments in data technology, interconnection and demand flexibility services are reducing the need to offer big subsidies to large fossil fuel back-up plants to keep the lights on. A new, more important, security challenge is emerging, however, as a result of energy networks converging as more of the economy electrifies. Cyber and data security, therefore, will become bigger challenges than the traditional security of supply.
The second is about levelling the playing field. The climate change minister, Claire Perry, gave one of her clearest statements yet that the government is actively searching for a way to hold an auction for new onshore wind capacity outside of England. There would be considerable financial benefits for consumers from enabling mature renewables such as large scale solar and onshore wind to compete for energy contracts (Contracts for Difference) and giving parity to back-up fossil fuelled generation and cleaner demand side measures in the Capacity Market.
The Clean growth strategy firmly aligns reducing greenhouse gas emissions and expanding the economy. Not only does this pave the way for greater policy ambition on tackling climate change, it will also appeal to a key conservative constituency that responds more to economic, rather than environmental, arguments.
The challenge now is to develop new policies that can deliver more clean growth and unlock this political and economic opportunity. Our conference showed that there is no shortage of ideas on the centre right for how to achieve this.
[Image: The United Kingdom Youth Climate Coalition’s Power Shift ’09 by UK Youth Climate Coalition from Flickr Creative Commons]