Central to the need for swift, decisive action to tackle the climate and nature emergencies is bold political leadership. We won’t see change to business as usual without significant buy-in from party leaders and, when the UK is a year out (at most) from a general election, there has hardly been a more important time for them to set out their stall to the public.
Green Alliance hosted 15 events over three conferences and engaged with countless representatives of NGOs, businesses and political parties, so it will take a long time to process everything we heard. While not yet fully digested, a week on from the Labour conference seems as good a time as any to put pen to paper on our takeaways.
From political dogfights to glitter bombs
Given the announcements undermining the government’s commitment to aspects of net zero a few weeks before, we were prepared for the Conservative Party conference to be a dog fight on all things climate. While it would be good to be able to say the reality didn’t reflect the expectation, unfortunately it did.
Rishi Sunak obviously sees net zero as a dividing line with Labour, and a way of shoring up his core support. Both Jeremy Hunt and Claire Coutinho used their speeches to highlight the spending and borrowing dangers of Labour’s plans. Similarly, by “slamming the brakes on the war on motorists” and reviewing the rollout of low traffic neighbourhoods, the prime minister clearly believed he was pitching himself on the side of the public. But, there were no indications that his intervention immediately reversed the trends in the polls that see Labour extending their lead.
The most interesting things we learnt were in conversations with members, councillors and candidates at fringe events and receptions, who were perhaps too honest about the struggles of the party and their own personal stance on Sunak’s net zero roll-back. It wouldn’t be true to say that everybody we met was aghast at it, but that was more because most members didn’t seem to care either way (which is perhaps telling in itself).
In contrast, at some of the climate and energy focused fringe events – attended by people with a genuine interest in the topic – the question that united them was whether you can make the idea of net zero more appealing to the public. Many will read that, groaning, and say “but we thought we answered that question years ago”, and wonder why we are moving backwards, not forwards, in climate discourse. But this is one indicator that we must never be complacent. Making a clear case to the public is more important than ever.
In one particularly memorable panel event, one councillor stated, “the only thing I care about is stopping the national grid”, and then went on to explain that she only wanted to see “human legs and animal legs, not metal legs” on the British landscape. She was referring to the rollout of pylons and grid infrastructure that needs to happen as we expand the grid to reach net zero. While perhaps poorly phrased, it was warmly received with many nodding heads around the room and represents the huge challenge major parties will face on how they will keep the countryside loving public onside at the same time as rolling out new grid infrastructure. No party has a good answer to that yet.
The Conservative Environment Network (CEN) did a valiant job of trying to engage conference goers on the importance of pushing the party into a better place and seems confident that its caucus will hold together despite obvious pressures. But, overall, not many environmentalists will have left the conference feeling positive.
While the Conservative conference felt like going back in time, Labour, just a few days later, was focused on how to effect the transition, and there was unmistakable optimism on possibilities of the future.
The increased attendance of businesses, lobbyists, foreign diplomats and other external groups this year was well documented, but there were also a record number of Labour fringe events on energy, climate, nature and environment issues going into policy detail to satisfy even the most wonky policy wonks.
It was very clear that Labour wanted to come out strong and counter the government’s attacks on climate action, leaning into the narrative that the prime minister’s intervention has brought huge instability to the sector, risking current and future investment in the UK. The dominant message across the fringe events was that the net zero goal is crucial to future economic growth and prosperity.
With Keir Starmer declaring he was keen to “speed ahead” with his Green Prosperity Plan, there was a great deal of fleshing out of what exactly that might look like, from Ed Miliband’s announcements on an Energy Independence Act, to Rachel Reeves’ declarations around unlocking and expanding the energy grid and the role of GB Energy. The Labour leader focused on “bulldozing” the planning system (going so far as to describe himself as a “YIMBY”). The niche policy detail on specific areas was enough to baffle some journalists we spoke to, who found themselves needing to become experts in energy grids overnight, but fundamentally the rhetoric of revolutionising the planning system raised more questions than it answered.
It also seems particularly important to note that, across all the party conferences, nature and biodiversity remained the poor cousin. While the Liberal Democrats touched on this more during their conference than the others (and should be applauded for doing so), there is still a glaring lack of joined up thinking and linking with local and national issues on nature across the board. For example, while the Liberal Democrats push the impacts of sewage at a local level, there is little to no conversation on the broader link with farming and what is needed to shift the dial on water pollution.
The future is unpredictable
Despite a major shift in climate strategy from Number 10, the government has yet to see its effect in the polls and the damage to the UK’s reputation globally and to investor confidence should not be underestimated.
As with Labour and the left of the party in previous years, we also can’t ignore the Conservative Party’s overt flirting with the right of their party, with the noticeable presence of Nigel Farage and a packed out Liz Truss rally, where she re-emphasised her ambitions to bring back fracking, and her desire to make it harder to build solar on agricultural land. If the Conservatives were to lose the next election and make what some are saying is an inevitable shift to the right, there are myriad questions around what that will mean for the environment.
In contrast, Keir Starmer’s personal approval ratings markedly increased after the glitter bomb incident and the party is feeling understandably buoyant due to a mix of the decline of SNP fortunes (confirmed by the overwhelming win in Rutherglen and Hamilton West), combined with tactical voting and a resurgence of the Liberal Democrats in traditional Conservative areas.
While it seems, for now, that Labour has doubled down on climate, there are pressures from within the party seeking to weaken those proposals, which, combined with the culture war around climate being pushed by Number 10, means nothing is certain. There have been two roll-backs on the Green Prosperity Plan. First, pushing back the date by which we the full £28 billion promised will be spent during the first parliament. Second, announced shortly after the conference finished, that this figure will include current spending, effectively reducing the promise to around £20 billion.
There’s no doubt the economic landscape is changing and the plight of households struggling to make ends meet must never be ignored, but our responsibility is to constantly press political parties to step up, not step back, in making the case clearly and strongly to the public for much greater investment in protecting us from climate and nature crises, for the sake of society, our economy, health and wellbeing, as well as the planet.