Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Greening Labour

Labour must deny political space to the Tories and lead on the environment

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Green policies aren’t just the right thing to do for the environment, they are the clever thing to do politically. Strong environmental policies are vital to rebuilding Labour’s electoral coalition and bringing back members who have deserted the party. By leading on the environment we can also deny political space to the Tories and defeat them on our terms.

An effective Labour narrative on the environment can help us win back many of the middle-class voters who now have reservations about voting for the party. We have seen in the London mayoral elections how the ‘green vote’ warmed to Ken Livingstone’s policies and how he was able to create an electoral coalition embracing these voters.

But the environmental agenda can also provide a bold, progressive theme to help Labour re-engage with voters beyond those traditionally concerned about the environment. Progressives know that our long-term economic future depends on moving to a low carbon economy and away from polluting, finite fossil fuels. Voters in traditional Labour heartlands should see their manufacturing heritage revitalised with sustained economic investment in developing and producing green technologies in these areas. Deprived inner-city communities should be brought together through collective ownership of local renewable energy projects. Policies such as these demonstrate how a positive, empowering environmental theme can be used by Labour as a central plank to rebuild a progressive coalition.

Labour must not be complacent and view these voters as latent Labour supporters who will eventually be bought back into the fold. This is a direct fight with the Tories. David Cameron’s branding of the Conservative party as a green party, seen in the ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’ campaign slogan, has been central to increasing their appeal to voters. By embracing the environment the Conservatives are trying to shed the view of them as the ‘nasty’ party and move their party closer to the political centre. This ‘greening’ of the Tories is part of the broader strategy which has also seen them discuss ideas of ‘General Well Being’ and even express concern over economic inequality. The difference with the environment is that it is a relatively new issue in the political mainstream and is yet to be associated firmly in voters’ minds with either of the two major parties. Neither party to date has claimed it as ‘their’ issue. If the Conservatives are successful, they will hugely increase their appeal to voters who in the past have seen them as cold, uncaring and out of touch. Labour needs to embrace progressive environmental policies, to deny this political space to the Tories.

The fight to win the environmental agenda is a fight we can win. The environment should be seen as a natural Labour issue. Solutions to climate change involve collective action, international cooperation and positive market intervention to bring desired outcomes for all. Bold, radical action is needed. These are progressive Labour values. The Conservatives – tending towards Euroscepticism, individualism, laissez-faire economic policies and big business – are poorly positioned to address this challenge.

Being serious about the environment is not a fad or fringe political concern. It will increasingly become one of the major political issues of our time and is central to the Conservatives’ attempt to move their party to the political centre. It an issue we can no longer ignore, not just for economic, ecological and security reasons, but for political reasons too. Now is the time for Labour to take the fight to the Conservatives and claim the environment in voters’ minds as a Labour issue.

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Mike Smith

is communications and policy officer for SERA and writes here in a personal capacity

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