Does Keir Starmer want to be a green prime minister?

As the Conservative Party conference gets going, now is a good time to reflect on what Labour’s conference last week meant for the environment.

Walking along the windy seafront back and forth between the Hilton, the Grand and the Brighton Centre, there was often an eerie atmosphere. With Labour delegates busy voting on the conference floor and fewer party members than in previous years, you could be forgiven for thinking not much was going on at all.

But, in fact, Labour conference showed the extent to which the climate crisis is an ever growing issue for the party, even if the leadership hasn’t fully grasped how to fit it into its narrative.

The environment as an issue was everywhere
The environment seemed to be right at the top of the agenda in Brighton. Labour grandee Margaret Beckett opened the conference by saying that the need for a green revolution would be “above all” the focus of the week. Later that day, party chair Anneliese Dodds said in her speech that she promised Labour in power would deliver a green future.

There were countless fringe events about the environment, with 23 explicitly environment themed events just on the Monday. Shadow cabinet members were out in force talking about a green recovery, decarbonising homes, sustainable transport, greening business, restoring nature and more.

The most significant interventions, however, came from Shadow Business Secretary Ed Miliband and Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves. Ed Miliband announced that Labour would provide a £3 billion package to the steel industry to help the sector transition to green steel. Rachel Reeves pledged to be the UK’s first “green chancellor” and announced that, when in government, Labour would put £28 billion per year of funding (including the £3 billion on green steel) towards the transition to a green economy. This announcement puts the onus on Rishi Sunak – who is largely silent when it comes to climate change – to step up his act ahead of the budget and spending review.

Labour doesn’t yet have a dominant green narrative
But, as in other areas, cracks were visible from the get go for Labour. A week before conference, a motion put forward by Labour for a Green New Deal, calling on the party to adopt ambitious green policies, was ruled out of order by conference organisers. Although a young climate activist was ignored by Keir Starmer, senior members of the shadow cabinet, such as Emily Thornberry, Luke Pollard, Fleur Anderson and Welsh Labour leader Mark Drakeford, supported Labour for a Green New Deal’s calls on social media.

Other instances pointed to a potential lack of join up. For example, there was frustration when the shadow minister for a green new deal appeared on a panel sponsored by the Drax group. And the next day, two MPs from the shadow transport team spoke at an event called ‘Build back greener: are ports and airports the key to a green recovery?’. While the West of England Metro Mayor Dan Norris set out his reasons for opposing Bristol Airport’s expansion, the shadow transport secretary argued that consumers would go to the next nearest airport if expansions didn’t go ahead.

There did seem to be overwhelming consensus on the need to deliver net zero locally. Metro mayors enjoyed a high profile, particularly Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan (and not just thanks to late night karaoke appearances). But there was still no clear sense of which extra powers should be given to local authorities and mayors, and exactly which net zero policies local actors should be expected to deliver.

The Labour leadership must embrace net zero ambition
With these contradictions, it will be down to Keir Starmer to set out a positive vision for the transition to net zero and to ensure his shadow cabinet is aligned.

In his speech, he announced that Labour would spend £6 billion a year to insulate 19 million homes. This new pledge is very welcome given the urgent need to make progress on decarbonising homes and the government’s repeated delay of the heat and buildings strategy. He also pledged to pass a clean air act and to introduce a ‘net zero test’ for all policies. But the audience waited an entire hour before he got to climate in his speech. Climate change was neither the centrepiece, nor a running thread. And, crucially, there was no mention at all of the nature crisis which is fast becoming an equivalent threat to our economy and wellbeing.

A robust line and scrutiny from the opposition is vital in challenging the government on its delivery of net zero. To do that, Keir Starmer and his team have to put climate at the heart of Labour’s narrative. And this would land well with voters, who now see the environment as the second most important issue, second only to coronavirus. One way of doing this would be to announce the sector by sector net zero transition plan that Ed Miliband suggested the shadow team is working on. But, with rumours of tensions between Keir Starmer’s team and Ed Miliband, it is not clear what approach the Labour leader will take.

Rachel Reeves has pledged to be the UK’s first green chancellor. The question is, does Keir Starmer want to be the first green prime minister?

[Image courtesy of Rwendland, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

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