Mitya Pearson analyses the Labour Party’s recent green offer, highlighting that although green issues weren’t electorally decisive in 2019, the pivot to a more environmentally focused policy platform is likely to be a sensible move from the party.
At Labour’s conference in Liverpool last month, the party sought to demonstrate their environmental credentials – notably unveiling a ‘fairer, greener future’ slogan and proposals for clean energy investments via a national wealth fund. Senior Labour figures regard decarbonization as a ‘vote winner’ with Johnson’s departure creating space for them on this issue. This may prove a sensible calculation.
Climate change had an unusually high profile during the 2019 general election campaign, but it appears to have been peripheral to the ultimate result. At the time Labour just led the Conservatives on the question of which party voters thought had the best policies on the environment although this did little to prevent the latter getting a sizeable majority. Ipsos polling showed that considerably more people thought that the environment would be very important to their vote choice compared with previous elections, but this was still dwarfed by issues such as Brexit, health and the economy.
Nonetheless, even if climate change is again not the main issue which determines the next general election result, Labour are tapping into something which is generally popular with the public. The environment is often regarded as a classic valence issue, where there is broad agreement on end goals (such as clean rivers) but parties compete to demonstrate their competence to deliver them. There is an ongoing academic discussion as to whether climate change specifically is a valence issue. However, it is clear that there is widespread agreement among the public on the importance of climate change and the need to reach net zero emissions including among Conservative voters, leave voters, red wall voters and working-class voters.
Although the Conservative’s climate policy pledges at the 2019 general election were less ambitious than Labour’s commitments, it appears that the former did enough to prevent the latter gaining a major advantage over them on this issue. YouGov have been tracking voters’ views of how the UK government is handling climate change since July 2019 with little change in perceptions seen in that time.
Given the Truss government’s early mixed signals on climate and her party’s internal division on net zero, it will be interesting to see if this picture changes, and Labour open up bigger leads over the Conservatives on this issue in the coming months. Were this to happen it could feed into a wider sense of Labour appearing more in tune with voters, given how high public concern is about climate change.
Specific aspects of Liz Truss’s energy and climate change policies, such as fracking, may turn off voters and provide opportunities for Labour. Indeed, Boris Johnson is said to have abandoned his initial enthusiasm about fracking because he thought it would cost the party seats and Conservative MPs representing areas with potential fracking sites are clearly concerned about this.
One risk for Labour is that climate policies are often criticised for imposing additional costs on consumers, with polling showing that this tends to dull public enthusiasm for net zero policies. Another danger is that an over-emphasis on climate change appears out of touch at a time when the public are particularly focused on inflation and the economy. However, it is relatively easy to develop a narrative in which climate policies complement, rather than crowd out, other objectives such as tackling the cost-of-living crisis or levelling-up the country (another area where some opportunities appear to have emerged for Labour following the transition from Johnson to Truss).
It is true that some of the actions required to deliver net zero emissions by 2050 in the UK are likely to be challenging politically. Despite this, there are obvious near-term opportunities for Labour to promote policies which both make a substantial contribution to emissions reductions and have the potential to be popular with the public, including reducing energy bills through increased rollout of cheap renewable power generation and energy efficiency measures. Climate initiatives can also often be packaged with co-benefits such as improved air quality and public health outcomes.
Historically, there seemed little incentive for Britain’s largest parties to focus too much on the environment. The Greens were trusted most on the environment, something which is still the case, so any resulting increases in attention on the issue may not have benefited Labour or the Conservatives.
In more recent years, some other dynamics have been observable. Parties have perceived discussing climate change as useful for their branding, most obviously during the early phase of David Cameron’s Conservative Party leadership, and helpful for them to reach specific groups of voters, for example it was identified as a way to help the Conservatives attract younger voters in the aftermath of the 2017 general election. More generally, growing levels of concern about climate change and the environment have effectively forced Labour and the Conservatives to develop a positive and pro-active story on these issues.
Emphasising climate change may also help Labour to squeeze the Green vote at the next general election.
It is clear that voters believe climate change is a serious threat. What is more opaque is exactly how, when and to what extent this will affect voting choice at British general elections. Nonetheless, there are solid reasons for thinking that foregrounding an ambitious set of climate policies can form part of an effective electoral strategy for Labour.
By Dr Mitya Pearson, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, King’s College London.