Yes, climate activists need to win over the right. But we need to win over the centre left again too.

The centre left once showed concern about climate change. Not any more.

Leo Barasi
27 August 2015

A growing awareness has spread among people worried about climate change that it can’t be tackled without support from the political right. Recently, several campaigning and research organisations have discussed how climate change can be presented in ways that appeal more to conservative and free-market sensibilities.

But this new focus on engaging the right, welcome though it is, overlooks a problem that is no less threatening to efforts to limit climate change. Worries about the climate aren’t just lacking on the political right: over the last few years, climate change has also largely disappeared as a priority for the centre-left.

Less than a decade ago, it seemed impossible to win power in the UK without a commitment to climate change. As it became clear that restrictions on emissions were inevitable, David Cameron saw the danger in being left behind and went to husky-hugging efforts to show that his party was at least as pro-climate as Labour.

Since the 2010 election, however, the main parties’ commitment to climate change has waned. It was often remarked that the 2010-2015 coalition government failed to live up to its goal of being the ‘greenest government ever’, while the new government, free from the moderating influence of the Liberal Democrats, has already abolished several measures designed to cut emissions. But the journey of the centre-left wing of Labour (that is, the right of the party) has attracted less attention.

The Labour government under Tony Blair, its most centrist leader, was more forward-thinking on tackling climate change than any previous administration. While far from perfect on the environment, Blair’s government pushed world leaders to agree a deal at the Kyoto climate conference, introduced the Climate Change Bill and created the Carbon Trust, among many other measures aimed at cutting emissions. For Labour’s centre-left, just as it was for David Cameron at the time, wanting to address climate change was a sign of modernity rather than something to be embarrassed about.

Economic credibility vs the climate

The economic crisis changed this. Now, the centre-left is overwhelmingly focused on tackling what it considers to be the main reason for Labour’s latest election defeat: the perception that the party can’t be trusted with the economy. In their view, Labour won’t be elected again until it persuades voters that it will never again drive the car into the ditch (as many people see it).

This means demonstrations of economic competence are prioritised over actions to tackle climate change to a greater extent than before. Witness the response of Labour’s leadership candidates to the recent proposal for a new runway at Heathrow. As soon as the proposal was made, Liz Kendall, the most centrist candidate, called on the government to approve the plans. This was quickly confirmed as Labour’s policy.

The political calculation is obvious. If Labour’s centre-left believes the party can’t win without restoring Labour’s reputation for economic competence, the loss of support of the relatively few people greatly concerned about climate change might seem a price worth paying. Their priority isn’t to win over the 1.1 million people who voted Green, but to gain enough support from Conservative voters to form a majority.

For some, the calculation means Labour should visibly renounce climate policies. Just as George Osborne has argued that the UK’s economy shouldn’t be held back by measures to cut emissions, some on the centre-left believe that Labour should be seen to prioritise the economy over climate change. Mostly, though, the climate has just been forgotten. In every conversation I have had about airport expansion with a Labour member on the right of the party, the debate has been about economics and local noise and air pollution: climate change hasn’t come up.

Why does this matter? You might think the right of the Labour Party is defunct. Polls of the Labour leadership contest suggest it isn’t the candidates of the centre-left, but the one of the left, Jeremy Corbyn, who is most likely to win. He certainly appears committed to making climate change a priority, having expressed opposition to Heathrow expansion and indicated that he would offer Ed Miliband the post of Shadow Energy Secretary – although he has also indicated he might support re-opening UK coal mines. 

Yet, even if Corbyn wins, the centre-left isn’t going away. Few among them believe that Corbyn will be Labour leader by the 2020 election, regardless of the outcome of this leadership contest. They will continue in their attempts to win the leadership, and the chances are that they will succeed at some point over the next few years. This means the centre-left’s views of climate change are likely to become Labour policy and to shape Conservative policy: the last decade has shown that, when Labour prioritises climate change, the Conservatives have to do the same.

Talking to the centre-left

So it is increasingly urgent that people worried about climate change start talking not only to the right but also to the centre-left. The support of the centre-left has often been taken for granted, when it fact it has been waning for years. The voters they are now targeting are not those who currently prioritise climate change, like Green supporters, but people who are more focused on the economy. The language and arguments that interests the centre-left are not the same as those that appeal to traditional advocates of action on climate change.

A crucial point for the centre-left is aspiration. Politicians are mocked when they use the term because it seems vacuous, but in fact it’s fundamental to how the centre-left tries to appeal beyond traditional Labour voters. For the centre-left, aspiration means “we can help you build yourself a better life”; climate change advocates need to show how their proposals facilitate this. As long as tackling climate change is seen to depend on limiting things or making them more expensive – flights, petrol, energy bills – without offering cheaper low-emission alternatives, the centre-left will see it as anti-aspirational and avoid it.

A similar challenge is making climate change central to policy areas where it is generally forgotten, like aviation policy. A useful argument for this is the UK’s climate change law, which requires an 80% cut in emissions. This law makes the question of achieving the target one of competence. People worried about climate change can encourage Labour’s centre-left to demonstrate that they are committed to taking the tough decisions needed to achieve the target. The political gain for Labour is the potential to show their competence in contrast to a government that cannot meet its target.

So long as Labour is struggling to be regarded as economically competent, the centre-left will tend to view measures on climate change as expendable when they are seen as limiting economic growth. This represents a great challenge to the UK’s climate policy, and one that has been overlooked with the emergence of efforts to interest the right in tackling climate change. People worried about climate change should stop taking the support of the centre-left for granted and start paying attention to the language and arguments that will appeal to them.

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