Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network.
Labour is stepping up its focus on the environment with the launch of the Labour Climate and Environment Forum (LCEF). Loosely following the model of the Conservative Environment Network, they intend to make the case within the labour movement for stronger environmental policies and to provide a forum for Labour MPs, councillors, and trade unionists to debate and champion a red-green agenda.
The group’s formation follows a series of headline-grabbing Labour policies on climate change, including a commitment to spend £28 billion on green capital investment (funded through borrowing) and create a state-owned Great British Energy. Notably, the party has been weaker on nature policy, consistently undermining the government’s post-Brexit nature-friendly farm subsidy reforms.
Labour’s play for the green vote should worry Conservatives because polls show the public continues to regard the environment as a top priority, despite the many other pressures the country faces. Labour is now more trusted on the environment than the Conservatives – with one recent poll showing only 14 per cent of voters trust the party the most to protect the environment compared to 26 per cent for Labour.
LCEF has commissioned polling showing that voters are more likely to want to vote Labour when they hear Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves talking about climate change. The increase in likelihood to vote Labour is especially large among the voters the party most needs to win, namely the over-40s and non-graduates who gave the Conservatives their majority in 2019.
The political imperative for parties to have strong green policies isn’t just based on polling data, but on economic analysis of key battleground constituencies. A recent Onward report found that red wall seats have a disproportionate share of fossil fuel-based jobs. People’s livelihoods are dependent on the UK attracting investment into green industries that can secure employment in these areas for the long term. Yet with generous incentives being put in place by the US and EU, the UK risks missing out without beefed up net zero policies.
In response to this Labour green offensive, conservatives must not validate those who lazily and falsely assume the environment is a left-wing issue. As the Conservative Environment Network never tires of pointing out, there is a long conservative tradition of environmental stewardship, going back to Edmund Burke, the father of British conservatism.
Much of the progress made on environmental protection in the UK has come from Conservative leaders. Whether it’s Margaret Thatcher putting climate change on the UN’s agenda, David Cameron backing offshore wind, Theresa May enshrining net zero in law, or Boris Johnson passing the Environment Act through parliament, Conservatives have led the way. They should champion this strong record and build on it.
This should not mean turning the environment into a front in the culture war. Consensus around the need to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss is a very good thing that many other countries are envious of. It gives businesses the confidence to invest in technology and infrastructure. But there should be competition between parties over environmental policies, testing ideas in the crucible of debate and helping ensure the best ones win out.
Conservatives cannot leave this policy area to the left, given the implications for our public finances, the economy, and the natural world. A left-wing approach to the environment would put more emphasis on public spending rather than private investment, top-down rather than bottom-up action, and demand reduction rather than technological innovation. Conservatives have to win the argument, but will only get a hearing with voters if we can put forward bold solutions that meet the scale of the environmental challenges we face.
Unfortunately, with his prevarication over whether to attend COP27, the new Prime Minister missed an early chance to show voters his commitment to protecting the environment. Yet as Chancellor, he took some important steps towards unleashing private capital for net zero projects and ensuring our financial sector properly took account of the risks to their investments from climate change and the net zero transition. He needs to build on this record in No10, and show voters he can talk the talk and walk the walk.
The Prime Minister could unlock a significant amount of private investment to help meet the UK’s environmental goals if he scaled up the approach he took at the Treasury. Businesses looking to purchase environmental credits from farmers for biodiversity and carbon want certainty over the criteria and accreditation process. Planned Sustainable Aviation Fuel factories want government-backed contracts to reduce price volatility. And renewables companies keen to invest in new wind and solar projects want an investment allowance in the new Electricity Generators Levy, as oil and gas producers enjoy.
The environment shouldn’t come at the expense of the other priorities that the Prime Minister set out for this year, but complement and reinforce them. Speeding up planning decisions for renewable energy and giving households tax breaks for installing insulation curbs inflation by bringing down energy bills. Support for new industries such as green hydrogen, battery manufacturing, and carbon capture is an important driver of economic growth. And improving infrastructure for walking and cycling and enhancing nature near to people’s homes through a new Wildbelt designation improves our mental and physical health, helping to ease pressures on the NHS.
With local elections in May and a general election next year, the Conservatives can’t afford to abandon this battleground now. The party should not retreat from its bold environmental programme of recent years, where it has a much stronger record than is often credited, but should instead redouble its efforts.