Labour's former Climate Change Secretary has been quiet on green issues since his election. Effective opposition means holding the Government to account.
Our guest writer is Peter Ainsworth, a Conservative MP from 1992 to 2010.
As Shadow Environment Secretary I argued that the way that centre right politicians of a previous generation had allowed the Left to take over the environment, as a political issue, was a huge setback to all of us who care about the only place we have to live. I had a hunch that the Left didn’t really care much about the green space in politics, but occupied it simply because it had been abandoned by everyone else. The behaviour of the Labour Opposition since the last Election suggests, depressingly, that I was onto something.
Labour have been eloquently silent on the environment, doing damage to the progress of the green agenda, to their effectiveness as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and, in consequence, to their own credibility.
The centre right is reclaiming the green territory. When David Cameron said that the Coalition would be “the greenest Government ever”, I believed him. So far my confidence has been rewarded. Despite the huge pressures caused by the need to deal with Brown’s budget deficit, and despite the sceptics and the ever-vigilant Treasury, the green promises have so far emerged largely intact from the CSR.
We will have a Green Investment Bank, a Renewable Heat Incentive, a workable system of Feed in Tariffs for renewable energy, and – somehow – a comprehensive programme for home energy efficiency which will also address fuel poverty. I know that none of these is likely to be perfect, and that compromises have been made; but we owe the fact of their existence to initiatives launched by the Coalition Parties when in Opposition; a handful of Ministers who genuinely “get” the commercial importance of the green agenda; and to assiduous work by NGO’s and green trade associations. It also helps that the Prime Minister gets the point.
Where was the Labour Party when these crucial decisions were being taken?
The recent Party Conference season offers a clue. The Conservatives devoted a whole day to “Green growth”. Labour’s official conference programme planned no plenary session on climate change or greenery of any kind. The closest they got was a session on “Creating Sustainable Communities” at which Hilary Benn was one of five Ministers speaking. But did the agenda or the description of the days proceedings mention climate change or environmental protection once? Sadly not.
And what is the Shadow Chancellor up to? When Alan Johnson set out his own ideas about the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) on 18th October the only thought that touched on the environment at all was that a loan to Sheffield Forgemasters should be re-instated in order to assist the building of new nuclear power stations. Great. By the time that he came to respond to the CSR statement two days later even that idea had disappeared from the script. It was left to George Osborne to make the point that, even in hard times, the environment matters.
And where, or rather who, are the Shadow Cabinet Members responsible for DEFRA and DECC? I don’t want to be unkind, but a Google news search reveals just two mentions apiece since their appointment – one of which reported the setting up of a fake Twitter page!
Having spent most of my 18 years in Parliament on the Opposition benches, I know that Opposition can be frustrating; but it is not hopeless. Indeed, it should not be. Effective oppositions don’t just prepare for the next election, but can and should shape policy. As the opposition-born campaign which led to the Climate Change Act illustrates, it is quite possible for Opposition Parties to make a difference by forging alliances with outside groups and across the political divide in Westminster. But they do need to make the effort. And Labour, it seems, isn’t.
The truth is that all Governments are coalitions, cobbled together from people with widely differing opinions even if they belong to the same Party. Ministers who want to promote green measures need support from across the political spectrum, and need to engage support from outside Parliament too. In this context, the Opposition can have real influence. Indeed, it is one of its essential functions.
But Labour seem to need to discover this; which is quite surprising, given that Ed Miliband made his political name on green issues and climate change. He was an effective Secretary of State, astute at building cross-Party consensus, and the progressive measures which he placed on the Statute Book (such as the Climate Change Act) had all initially been opposed by his own Government. He, of all people, should understand the difference which Opposition Parties can make.
Making a difference is not just an opportunity for Labour, it is a duty. Oppositions should help move forward the political agendas they value. It is Labour’s job to ensure that the Coalition actually implements the policies that will make this Government the greenest ever. It’s called “holding the Government to account” – an old fashioned concept, perhaps, but a vital one.
As one of the greenest members of the last Government, Ed will have used the pressure applied by Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to persuade his own Party to adopt progressive green policies. Maybe, having become Leader, he finds that there are too many distractions; maybe, under the influence of Trade Unionists (who in my experience have never gone out of their way to help the environment) he sees the green agenda as a low priority; maybe he doesn’t in fact care that much. We shall see.
There is an early opportunity to prove me wrong. On Friday 12th November the Commons will debate two Private Members’ Bill introduced by Labour MPs. One is to do with sustainable livestock (which I originally introduced at the end of the last Parliament); and one on sustainable food procurement.
Everyone knows just how vulnerable Private Members’ Bills are, but that is no excuse for not giving them a fair wind and allowing them to be debated in detail in Committee. As things stand, the Labour Opposition has been silent on both these measures, failing to lend support. Who are they afraid of? Do they actually care much? Even the “greenest Government ever” will need the help of the Opposition to achieve its objectives; they would never admit that of course, but it is true.
If, as I suspect, the Government does not support these Bills (Governments generally don’t like Private Members’ Bills) Labour at least has the chance to cause some embarrassment. That’s another thing that Opposition Parties are meant to do.
In addition to being a former shadow DEFRA Secretary, Peter Ainsworth chaired the Environmental Audit Committee. He is currently Chair of both the Conservative Environment Network and Plantlife, as well as being a Founder Member of the Robertsbridge Group.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.