For a minor by-election, Uxbridge has caused major ripples. Pro and anti-climate advocates are out swinging, united in a chorus of “it was ULEZ what won it”. Labour, meanwhile, has been cautious not to pick a lane. Yet some commentary would have us believe this is unacceptable; that any attempt to engage with contradictions in public sentiment is the ultimate sin. This misses the point: Labour is right not to act as if the road to net zero is simple. To win an election and govern successfully, Labour must be honest with the electorate.
In government, there are no easy choices. Labour needs to make progress in a world of imperfects. Successful government means making uncomfortable decisions that create political space to move things forward. No government will ever solve every challenge. For climate advocates, this means understanding that climate policy cannot be the altar on which all other priorities are sacrificed. That as a government, Labour will have numerous priorities. Climate, though vital, is one of many.
While polling tells us the public supports “climate action”, the picture gets murkier when it comes to policy. Because Labour is unequivocally pro-climate, it runs into this challenge in a way the Tories don’t, playing into the hands of a government pushing climate as a wedge issue, citing eye-watering costs or state-mandated behaviour change as excuses for inaction.
Keir Starmer has learned from Australian Labor how to blunt these attacks with disdain and pragmatism. The challenge lies in maintaining the excitement that Labour will do things differently, with openness about challenges. While many “lessons of Uxbridge“ are just Westminster hysteria, they demonstrate the difficulty in being seen as ready to govern and willing to campaign on issues.
Winning power requires three messages: hope that Labour can make life better, a clear plan of how, and a message of why it wants to. While this is a truism, Net Zero adds the colour and verve to Labour‘s wider platform from which all else flows.
Yes, net zero requires investment; claiming otherwise is dishonest. The test of success is luring private finance into green investments while showing voters that public money is invested, not spent. Labour needs to show that benefits aren’t for “the economy”, but “for you, your job and your family”. Currently, it is leaning on aphorisms about jobs, growth and leadership. Its challenge is to make climate policy tangible in a way that demonstrates peoples’ lives will be improved not in 2050, but now.
Net zero can’t suffer the same fate as levelling up. To do the how, Labour must learn from the failure of Johnsonism. Levelling up was always a promise of some intangible ‘prosperity’ in the future which, in so many cases, hasn’t materialised, with regional inequality as bad as ever.
Facing a hostile press and voters apathetic towards Labour in power, it will have to act fast to prove that voters’ faith will be repaid with something real. While talk of ‘mission-led government’ is a good soundbite, it doesn’t mean anything yet. A new Labour government should be laser-focused not on missions, but on delivery, something missing from 13 years of Conservative rule.
Rapid delivery buys political legitimacy for more radicalism later, when Labour can show its ideology and be more than just “not the tories”. To get that snowball rolling and make the net zero mission achievable, we need as much tangible change as quickly as possible. But how?
This underpins everything, but we are lagging behind. Private investment is the name of the game; crowding it in creates the space for government to improve lives by ensuring that households see the benefits. Energy UK estimates that an investment hiatus could mean £62 billion of economics losses between now and 2030. Easing these blockers to finance will allow Labour to tell a good news story from the start.
Reform to Contracts for Difference (namely, raising the strike price) or extending the capital allowance regime are easy steps with industry backing. New grid-connection management rules would mean viable projects wait less. Redressing imbalanced energy policy costs could immediately reduce bills and increase investment in industries where high operational prices are a significant barrier.
Labour is committed to upgrading the energy efficiency of 2 million homes a year, but despite a £60 billion promise, spending that money fast with limited supply chains will be hard. Increasing demand first through reforms to EPCs, a campaign to advertise and inform to consumers, and tasking local authorities to identify need will build one side of the market. On the other, working with the financial sector to widen access to green lending for home upgrades, and better connecting households with traders can increase supply.
With no grant for households to buy an EV, the UK is a global exception. SMMT estimates that electrifying cars could present opportunities worth £106bn between now and 2030, built on the UK’s capacity in intellectual property, design, and manufacturing. Labour should subsidise purchases, but that doesn’t just mean cash handouts. Taxation providing long-term certainty to owners, reduced VAT on public EV charging, or working with local authorities to install minimum levels of charging infrastructure all help too.
The prize of these early climate wins is twofold. Private capital eases fiscal constraints, while progress builds public trust, creating the political space to make long-term missions more achievable. Delivering a net zero grid, developing a rival to the Inflation Reduction Act or even (whisper it) carbon pricing all become viable policies. In other words, a Labour project moves within reach.
Labour wants to transform the UK economy and the fortunes of its people, blazing a global trail on net zero. But 2023 presents challenges that previous Labour governments didn’t face; Starmer and team need to negotiate those first, earning the right to stand on the shoulders of past administrations to change Britain for the better. To quote another trailblazer, the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “you can’t have it all, all at once”.
Sam Alvis and Ben Westerman are writing in a personal capacity. For more on how Labour can champion the transition to net zero, check out Net Zero: Why we need a mission-led Labour government.