HomePolitical leadershipWhat did the party conferences tell us about the politics of the environment?

What did the party conferences tell us about the politics of the environment?

Labour’s slogan was ‘A fairer, greener future’ and commitments to climate action ran through speeches by Ed Miliband (“This is the undeniable truth of our age: it is cheaper to save the planet than destroy it”), Rachel Reeves (“ I will be Britain’s first green chancellor…. our Green Prosperity Plan is about… economic growth”) and Keir Starmer.

Green Alliance has spent many years arguing that policies that are good for the environment are likely to be good for the economy and that there is no conflict between green policies and social justice. It was good to hear these themes articulated so strongly by Keir Starmer.

He imagined looking back after five years of Labour government and seeing a greener Britain: “We’re leading the world on climate change. People look at us and follow our example. New jobs, industries, technologies benefit all parts of the country. We’re proving net zero can be achieved, the most precious gift to the next generation is within our grasp, a safer, more prosperous world to live in. And because we are fairer, because we are greener, we’re also more dynamic.”

He gave plenty of examples of the economic opportunities presented by net zero. “Some nation is going to lead the world in offshore wind. Why not this one? Some nation will win the race for electric vehicles. Why not us?”. He promised to create “a green growth superpower” to decarbonise the energy system by 2030; double onshore wind, triple solar and quadruple offshore wind; and insulate 19 million homes. Delivering all this through “the biggest partnership between government, business and communities this country has ever seen”, he said, would result in a million new jobs and “cheaper bills and higher living standards”.

As encouraging as the frontbench speeches were, delegates from all wings of the party made the case for action on climate and nature, stressing its benefits for good jobs, the economy and people’s quality of life. But there was little on nature in shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon’s speech and nothing in the leader’s speech.

Labour now needs serious farming and nature policy
The next step for Labour is to set out some serious policies to restore nature and reform farming policy. The Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes, intended to replace the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), are now under serious threat. We risk squandering the biggest Brexit opportunity and ending up with something that looks remarkably like the CAP. Labour has been critical of the rollout of ELM, but now is the time to fight for it: designing a wholly new scheme would take years and all momentum for reform would be lost. It would also make it much harder to achieve Labour’s aspirations for better water quality, as most water pollution results from agricultural run off.

Labour also needs to unite the trade and farming agendas. The shadow trade secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, was on message on climate change (“the biggest challenge and opportunity Britain faces”) but there was no sense that he gets the threat the government’s trade policy poses to UK standards. Since Brexit, Defra has been the one department resisting poor quality trade deals. But it is now, it seems, subordinate to the international trade department.

Labour has generally been weaker on the natural environment than on climate. Shadow ministers are keen to counter this perception and we look forward to working with them. But, if the Conservatives have traditionally been strong on nature, putting it centre stage under Theresa May and Boris Johnson, this seems no longer to be the case.

Three worries about the new government
In its short time in power, the new administration has seriously alarmed conservationists. Three worries stand out (though I could give a longer list): the threat to farming reform; the plan to repeal or renew all retained EU law by the end of 2023, including over 570 laws or regulations owned by Defra; and the plans for investment zones, which will be able to bypass regulations and planning rules. It is no wonder that, for the RSPB, backed by other green NGOs, this adds up to an attack on nature.

There is little detail on what is being proposed, but the direction of travel is clear. In the words of David Cameron’s former adviser, Julian Glover: “The thrust of this government is that rules of all sorts get in the way of pouring concrete. We are not wrong to be scared.” William Hague has also expressed alarm.

Liz Truss’s first speech as leader was a shocker from an environmental perspective. It had none of Boris Johnson’s enthusiasm for environmental action. Growth, it seems, will come from deregulation and new infrastructure, including roads, not from embracing the opportunities of decarbonisation in a net zero world. Green Alliance has no problem with a focus on growth, we pump out ideas on industry, finance, skills and much else that will help to deliver it. But the prime minister seemed less interested in positive proposals than in painting a large chunk of society (including, no doubt, many Conservative MPs) as “the anti-growth coalition”. It is not uncommon to try to unite a divided party by finding an enemy, but this was poor stuff. It is unlikely to win over the shires.

Defra is becoming an ‘economic growth’ department
In his first weeks in the job, the environment secretary, Ranil Jayawardena, has done his best to alienate environmentalists. He has given the impression that he is at MAFF, not Defra. He is belatedly seeking to build bridges, but his conference speech gave no sense of how he will tackle complex trade-offs. He pledged to transform Defra from a “regulatory department” into “an economic growth department”; to “free our farmers… trust our farmers” and “cut through the red tape that has held back our farms for too long”; to support green farming schemes and address biodiversity loss; and to “work day and night to preserve our green and pleasant land”. But what happens when these aims conflict, as they will? It is not clear, but we can guess: economic growth (whatever that means in this context) is “top of the list”.

I left Birmingham as deflated as many Conservative MPs. There were rays of hope. The Conservative Environment Network held a series of high quality, packed meetings. The new climate minister, Graham Stuart, clearly understands both the need for climate action and benefit to the economy. And plenty of MPs and activists remain strongly committed to green policies and proud of the many achievements of Conservative governments since 2010.

I hope we can work with the new administration, as we have with its predecessors. Relations between environmental NGOs and Defra have been particularly fruitful over the past five years. For much longer, Green Alliance has worked constructively with successive governments on energy, industry, resources, skills, finance and, yes, how to get economic growth. We would love to continue to do so. It is not in our interests to have a scrap. But, on the evidence of the Birmingham conference, it is not clear that the government as a whole wants to listen.

Written by

Executive director of Green Alliance ( and Chair of the Greener UK board (

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