James Watt, Ronald Reagan’s first Secretary of the Interior, died on May 27th. He was a hard man, and out-and-out, totally unapologetic ideologue. He hated US environmentalists almost as much as they hated him, describing them as “a left-wing cult which seeks to bring down the type of government I believe in”.

It reminded me of how refreshing it is to see raw ideological beliefs back in the climate and environment debate here in the UK, precipitated by Kier Starmer’s new Green Prosperity Plan, launched back in June. Amongst many other things, this confirmed that a Labour Government will permit no new investment in North Sea oil and gas. Both Rishi Sunak and Grant Shapps (Secretary of State to the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) went ape shit.

Here’s Rishi: “They are putting ideology ahead of jobs, ahead of investment, ahead of energy security”…”pure energy surrender”. And here’s Shapps: “an ideological vendetta against British energy independence…from a bunch of anarchist eco-activists”. A shame they didn’t tell us what they really think!

It was obviously below both Kier Starmer and Ed Miliband (Shadow Secretary at DESNZ) to respond directly – or maybe they were just spoilt for choice in terms of what they might have said:

  1. It was recently revealed that the UK came 27th out of 30 OECD countries in terms of investment in the Green Economy. The IPPR has recently highlighted the consequences of years of under-investment here in the UK, pointing to “an investment and growth doom-loop”. Sunak and his not-so-merry ideologues would appear to have zero interest in what Joe Biden is doing in the USA (and not just through the massive Inflation Reduction Act), or what China has been doing for the last decade to build world-beating companies in the global green economy, or what the EU is doing with its Green Deal Industrial Plan. That’s not how we do things here in the UK – for deep, dangerous and deluded ideological reasons.
  2. Sunak loves to talk of the UK as “a science and technology superpower”, as if we were on track to becoming some kind of Singapore of the Northern Hemisphere. It’s total nonsense. This ersatz politician has nothing to fall back on other than the kind of market fundamentalism he was so well trained in at Goldman Sachs. Despite his blathering on about “Global Britain”, he would rather see the UK fall further behind in this global green “arms race” than acknowledge that the state today has an all-important role to play in investment, regulation, incentivisation, and shaping today’s market forces.
  3. It doesn’t seem to matter that there is huge support for the Green Economy across the business community and within the investment community. A new report from the Society of Chemical Industries perfectly captures the growing frustration of UK business. Highlighting the EU’s Green Deal Industrial Plan (itself a direct response to Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act), it points to the “£230 billion opportunity”) that UK will be missing out on because of Sunak’s inability to think strategically about green manufacturing, life sciences, clean tech and so on.
  4. It’s also hugely popular with the general public: DESNZ’s own Public Attitudes Tracker in April showed strong and consistent levels of support for clean tech, renewables (particular solar), energy efficiency and Net Zero policies in general. Perish the thought, however, that Sunak’s government might seek some kind of electoral advantage in all of this if that means having to set aside his market fundamentalism.
  5. Even Boris Johnson, with his massively over-hyped 10-point plan back in November 2020, understood this kind of electoral appeal. He also understood that the last thing capital markets want is full-on laissez-faire extremism. They want consistency, transparent regulatory frameworks to help de-risk investment, co-investment opportunities, frictionless planning and consenting processes – literally everything at which this shrunken Government looks down its ideologically blocked nose.
  6. So they don’t even have a plan, let alone a strategy. In the recent report from the Public Accounts Committee, Chair Meg Hiller ripped into Sunak’s government (and DESNZ in particular) for its incoherent approach in delivering on its own Net Zero goals, wasting money and missing opportunities year after year. “What is the plan?”, she asks plaintively.
  7. Literally incapable of understanding the astonishing transformation underway in the Global Economy, Sunak chooses to stick with what Tory governments have always done: first and foremost, look after your own (particularly in the oil and gas industry), hang on to your illusions (including your nuclear illusions), and profess concern for the poor facing high energy bills while continuing to screw them at every turn.

The damage already done to our economy as a consequence of 13 years of this ideological absolutism (both domestically and internationally) is incalculable – as is the damage done to citizens through high energy bills.

Which would have made it all the more invigorating to hear Starmer explicitly defending the ideological foundations on which Labour’s Green Prosperity Plan is based:

  1. Affirming the powers of the nation state (and the obligations of the state) to act on behalf of all citizens at a time of crisis, challenging vested interests and corporate greed.
  2. Confirming the decision to set up a new state-owned clean energy generator (GB Energy, to be based in Scotland), acting independently with a corporate charter to invest for all UK citizens for the long term.
  3. Unashamedly making the case for a just transition – “ensuring the British people enjoy the benefits of our clean energy revolution in lower bills and more jobs”, and planning strategically to take account of the hundreds of thousands of workers whose jobs currently depend on today’s carbon intensive economy – particularly in the oil and gas industry.
  4. Ridiculing Sunak’s laissez-faire instincts, by pledging to reform the planning system, to redefine “national interest” in order to limit the destructive powers of a generation of nimbies, imposing new, comprehensive Net Zero mandates on regulators like Ofgem and Ofwat which have done nothing but obstruct today’s just energy transition.

Unfortunately, the debate about Labour going back on its pledge to invest £28 billion a year in the Green Economy rather got in the way of all that. With a Shadow Chancellor (Rachel Reeves) who endlessly bangs on about her sacred duty not to “play fast and loose with the public finances”, this clearly wasn’t the moment to go full-on ideological. (Weirdly, Labour’s chronic fear of financial markets seems to have been reinforced by the way those markets destroyed the government of Liz Truss).

Personally, I saw all of that as a total non-debate. It will be impossible for a new Labour Government to scale up from a near standing start to anything like £28 billion of new investment in anything less than 3 years. Even sympathetic experts are deeply sceptical of this aspect of the Plan.

Since then, it’s all got a little bit more heated. The Sunday Times (in all its glorious Murdochian concern for the planet-trashing elites of the Western world) is doing its best to drive a wedge between Starmer and Reeves on the one hand and Labour’s “extremists” (like Ed Miliband) on the other. Its big scoop was an apparent comment at a Shadow Cabinet meeting from Kier Starmer that “he hated tree-huggers” – as a way of putting Miliband back in his green box.

This is all just so much green froth – and there will be a lot more of it before the Election next year. Environmentalists just need to stick to what we know about Labour’s “on the record” commitments: to bring forward the date for a completely decarbonised electricity grid from 2035 to 2030. Let’s be clear about this: this is indeed a massively ambitious target, almost certainly the most ambitious target of all OECD countries. Indeed, I see it as the first genuinely proportionate policy response, by any mainstream political party, to a Climate Emergency that just goes on getting worse and worse.

And it’s not just sticking a Boris-like digit in the air and hoping for the best. The specific targets for offshore and onshore wind, for solar, for green hydrogen still need to be fleshed out, but they’re all deliverable. If I was a more tolerant person, I’d even allow Starmer and Miliband a little bit of slack on their nuclear nonsense (getting Sizewell C “over the line”, doubling down on Small Modular Reactors etc) but I really can’t – simply because they both know that they’re fantasising. There is literally NOTHING in the nuclear locker which will deliver a single additional electron before 2040, let alone 2030. By which time, it will of course be far too late.

The stuff that really excites me is not all that macho supply side stuff, but the demand side of things. £6 billion a year on a new Warm Homes Plan, bringing 19 million homes up to a decent energy efficiency standard within a decade (creating up to 4 million new jobs), working closely with Local Authorities (something which Sunak, Shapps and the odious Michael Gove feel ideologically disinclined to contemplate on any terms!), through a massive new grants programme for community projects (at £600 million), and a further £400 million to be made available in low-interest loans.

From very different perspectives, Starmer and Miliband have cottoned onto a critical dimension of this radical transition, totally ignored by Sunak’s ideology-driven Tories: people have to feel good about it – not just reluctantly compliant but positively good. Hence Miliband’s explicit commitment in the Plan to reduce average household bills by £1400 per annum, and reducing the burden for UK businesses by £53 billion over the first period in Government. He points to the potential for 200,000 direct jobs in the Green Economy, with a further 300,000 indirect jobs – figures confirmed by many independent experts, including the Government’s own Committee on Climate Change, which talks of 725,000 new jobs across the Green Economy as a whole.

For that reason, Labour has to rebut, rebut, and rebut again all these persistent myths about the Green Economy inflicting high costs on consumers and undermining energy (and national) security. As a new report from the Oxford Smiths School points out, “the faster we move, the more we save”. For that reason, the Daily Mail’s ideologically-driven scare stories about the transition ahead must be exposed as the tissue of lies that it is – including its recent claim that Labour’s Plan “will increase mortgage payments by £1000 per annum”. Sorry, you idiots: that’s down to Truss not the turbines.

A lot of this is going to be about timing. If the General Election comes in Autumn 2024, we will almost certainly have lived through one of the most torrid years ever in terms of climate impacts and financial disruption. The new El Nino is already making its mark. The whole green and climate agenda will command a far higher profile in the next General Election than ever before – and it already seems clear that climate and the environment will define the ideological battleground between Labour and the Tories at least as powerfully as their different economic strategies.

As a true believer in small-state neo-liberalism, Sunak the “market zealot” will then be up against Starmer “the eco-zealot”, as Sunak recently described him.

It’s a massive ideological divide, with everything (post-Covid) signalling people’s readiness to see the full power of the state and its institutions adroitly deployed to navigate what is going to be an incredibly turbulent time in global politics.

Kier Starmer and Rachel Reeves would do well not to replicate the civil war going on in the Tory Party about its Net Zero policies. Let Tory sceptics (led by the once-influential ERG and nutters like Lord Frost) battle it out with Tory greenies (represented by Zac Goldsmith and the ever-so-nice and ever-so-ineffectual Conservative Environmental Network) battle it out in an increasingly bizarre war of words given that nothing is actually happening by way of deeds.

Which means less of the rather pathetic tree-hugger invective, and rather more of the smart “market-friendly”, investment-led industrial strategy that the UK is crying out for.