The 2019 general election saw a contest between the main two parties as to which was the greener. The manifesto on which the Conservatives won was, I noted at the time, “probably the greenest manifesto of any party elected to power in the UK”. It promised “the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth”, acknowledged the climate emergency, reiterated the party’s commitment to net zero and pledged to create a farm support system “based on ‘public money for public goods’”. Despite Covid, the government continued to push green policies both on climate and nature.
It seemed, however fitfully, to understand the scale of the climate crisis. At the opening of COP26 in Glasgow, Boris Johnson said: “the longer we fail to act, the worse it gets and the higher the price when we are eventually forced by catastrophe to act… We need to act now. If we don’t get serious about climate change today, it will be too late for our children to do so tomorrow.” COP26 was notable, among other things, for concrete action to restore biodiversity, an achievement of the UK’s COP presidency and its Conservative government.
The government has continued to say and do good things. It has not done enough, of course. It is off track to meet its own targets on both climate and nature, and has been slower to take advantage of the economic opportunities of net zero than the US or EU.
The environment is still a leading concern of voters
Nevertheless, it has largely stuck to the course, in spite of increasingly shrill opposition from within its own ranks. Labour has upped the ante on climate ambition, but the Conservatives have shown more passion and understanding on nature. In the face of the cost of living, NHS waiting lists, the war in Ukraine, and much else, the environment remains a leading concern of voters. As Sam Hall of the Conservative Environment Network says, there is “no part of the electorate that net zero scepticism plays well with”.
Given all this, one might reasonably hope the next election would be a contest on the government’s environmental record and the parties’ ambitions for the future. Indeed, it must be. This has to be the decade of action if we are to avert irreversible climate and ecological breakdown. The next parliament is likely to run to 2029. We cannot afford to screw this up.
But, instead of raising ambition and standing on its record, the Conservative party now appears intent on making climate action a dividing line between the parties. This is deeply depressing and more reminiscent of the politics of the US or Australia than Britain.
In January, Labour pledged to stop granting new oil and gas licences in the North Sea. This is in line with advice from the International Energy Association, the , the government’s own net zero tsar and countless scientists. A week ago, it repeated the commitment, around the same time as it was revealed that Dale Vince, a funder of Just Stop Oil, had also made a large donation to the Labour Party.
This has been the signal for increasingly hysterical and inaccurate attacks on Labour’s policy. No one seriously believes that Keir Starmer supports Just Stop Oil or that Dale Vince’s donation has influenced Labour’s energy policy. But that has not stopped the attacks.
Labour’s plans, says Grant Shapps, “would be a disaster for your bills, the UK economy, national security and the climate”. He must know this is incorrect and, in part, contradicts previous government statements. But the charge is designed to make the electorate’s flesh creep, so he repeats it: “By siding with #JustStopOil anarchists they’re opening the door to tyrants like Putin to use energy as a weapon to blackmail our country.”
The attacks on Labour are dishonest
Just good knock about fun? I think it is more dangerous. Grant Shapps knows the severity of the climate crisis and is in charge of delivering net zero. He has a year or more to drive forward policies that will tackle the climate crisis and, in the process, strengthen the economy. Instead, he is knowingly undermining the case for climate action and licencing the sceptics in his own party.
Right on cue comes Conservative party deputy chair Lee Anderson, attempting to make Nigel Farage sound balanced: “There should be no doubt whose tune Labour marches to. Their entire energy policy is being dictated by Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil loonies. As these eco-zealots line Starmer’s pockets with their donations and whisper in his ear, Labour are plotting to smash up British industry, kill thousands of jobs and leave us at the mercy of foreign powers. Labour’s policy is a surrender plan and these fanatics won’t rest until our energy security is completely dismantled.” He missed out Keir Starmer’s support for slaughtering the first born.
One of the reasons the environment featured so strongly in the 2019 election was the impact of Extinction Rebellion and the school strikers. They put the issue on the front page as NGOs, for all their efforts, had failed to do for years. We should defend the right of peaceful protest as the hallmark of a sound democracy. But Just Stop Oil should also beware of alienating those who support climate action but also want to go about their daily lives. To put it mildly, if climate action comes to be associated with personal inconvenience or political extremists, it will not help the cause.
It is also the case that Labour cannot take the moral high ground. Grant Shapps and his colleagues know that their attacks on Labour are dishonest, but Keir Starmer knew that Labour’s ‘Rishi is soft on paedos’ attack ads were dishonest and in terrible taste. It looks as if we are in for an unedifying year or more as the election approaches.
If politicians want to spend the next 18 months lying and throwing mud, I do not suppose anything can stop them. But, while they drag politics generally into the gutter, is there any chance they will protect the cross party consensus on climate that has made the UK a world leader and that gives some hope that we can take serious action before it is too late?