This was originally published on openDemocracy
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.