The most curious thing about Labour’s response to Rishi Sunak’s Net Zero speech is how little of a response there has been.
Yes, there has been an entertaining mock-up of Sunak in Liz Truss’s pocket: not so much a comment on the Prime Minister’s vertical challenges, but a suggestion he was merely puppeting his predecessor’s Monday missive. But Keir Starmer has shown no sign of wishing to rush into the debate. One does not have to live at 221b Baker Street to think that the Prime Minister’s gamble has exposed the Opposition’s own confusion over going green.
Labour’s headline response is that they will reinstate the 2030 deadline for banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars if they win the next election. Ed Miliband, the so-called Shadow Secretary of State for Climate Change and Net Zero, announced this at an event yesterday evening, and it was confirmed by Steve Reed, the new Shadow Environment Secretary, on the morning media round.
What is interesting about both men (something has to be) is that neither is Starmer. Being the leader of the Labour Party is something with which Miliband has previously dabbled. But his vehemence about the Government’s U-turn – claiming he was “disappointed for the country” – came primarily from his latter-day reinvention as an eco-enthusiast than from any hope of a return to that benighted office.
In swapping him for Reed as the public face of Labour’s response, his party were making a conscious effort to reduce the temperature of the whole affair. Similarly, Starmer has not spoken directly about the announcement, or criticised Sunak’s speech.
He has put out a pair of Tweets promising his “mission driven government” will provide the “stability business needs”, provide the Holy Trinity of “good jobs”, “cheaper bills”, and “real energy security”, and make Britain a “clean energy superpower”. All very worthy – motherhood, apple pie, and a gigafactory for every boy and girl. But is there anything in those ambitions with which the Prime Minister would actually disagree?
As has been so unsubtly apparent in recent weeks, Number 10 wants to use statement policies like this Net Zero u-turn to establish some clear dividing lines between Labour and themselves. If they won’t get in the gutter to find Starmer’s Willie Horton, they will at least resort to the traditional scare-mongering about what a Labour government would mean for you and your family.
It is in Labour’s interest not to rise to this bait. They have chosen not to engage with CCHQ’s list of five potential policies – such as new taxes on flying and meat consumption – a Labour government could introduce. Both Reed and Miliband have confirmed Labour is not aiming to make aviation more expensive or require ‘seven new bins for recycling’. England sleeps easier tonight.
However, refusing to play by Isaac Levido’s rulebook is not the Opposition’s only reason for dead-batting the speech. They also have an interest in allowing Sunak to take the political flack for moving on elements of the Net Zero agenda that were becoming both unpopular and difficult to deliver.
In committing to keep the 2030 target, Labour can at least claim they are echoing various disgruntled car manufacturers, burnish those pro-business credentials, and keep one eye on any Green inroads to their Left. They also suggested they would reinstate the need for landlords to upgrade the energy efficiency of their homes but would not commit to a target date.
Landlord-bashing will always go down well with a party whose core vote is based on renters. Yet the crucial difference between the Milibandite tendency and the natural caution of the Starmtroopers is that the latter are more preoccupied with winning the votes of those who backed the Conservatives at the last election. They assume the hippies are onside, in the face of Rishi Cartman.
Hence why – as the reality of Starmer as a bland middle-aged man who would quite like to be Prime Minister becomes ever-more apparent – Miliband and his environmental agenda have been consistently pushed to the sideline. From promising a “brighter, greener future” at their 2021 Conference and “Great British Energy” in 2022, Labour have now punted his plans for a £28 billion ‘Green Prosperity Plan’ into the distant future, under the aegis of Rachel Reeves’ conveniently stringent fiscal rules.
Of course, the public finances are in an even shabbier position than they were in 2021. Our game of footsie with Trussonomics has also exposed the markets’ hostility to increased borrowing. But Labour’s caution also points towards the vital truth of their position: that Starmer and his team find themselves much closer to being in government much sooner they had expected.
The priority for Labour is therefore not to jeopardise their current lead. Uxbridge and South Ruislip has shown them the hay a Tory campaign can make with an unpopular green policy. Although voters may broadly back the Net Zero target and the policies required to get there, they poll much less well with Conservatives. Starmer cannot afford too many hostages to fortune.
Moreover, some of Sunak’s scepticism is based on the practical realities of what can be achieved soon. We lag behind our European competitors when it comes to installing heat pumps; the technology remains expensive. Quietly embracing the Government’s fudge is one fewer way to add to the cost-of-living crisis.
Starmer also understands the importance of not being tied to an unpopular predecessor. One imagines yesterday’s Tweet will not be the last time Labour HQ picture Sunak with the Trussite spectre looming over him. This hesitancy has not stopped him dabbling with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. But it has driven his campaign to put as much difference as possible between himself and his old friend Jeremy Corbyn.
He has neutralised his ties to one former Labour leader; he is sensitive to the claim he is in the pocket of another. How the tables have turned for Miliband. In Starmer’s low-key response to Sunak’s speech, he hope not to pick a fight on an issue that may be just as divisive for his party as the Prime Minister’s.