If Ed Miliband want to differentiate Labour from the Tories, it could start by showcasing its environmentally friendly economic policies.
Another year, another profoundly depressing Budget speech.
In both style and substance, his speech made it entirely clear where he stands on this whole decarbonising the economy pinko tosh.
The chancellor gave himself kudos for his £1 billion of subsidy for North Sea oil and gas, and the promise of more for the UK’s putative shale gas industry. He showed pride in the UK “spending more on new roads than in a generation” and displayed a devilish twinkle in the eye when reminding us all that “creating a low carbon economy should be done in a way that creates jobs rather than costing them”.
We also got the mercy-slaying of the long-postponed three pence inflationary fuel duty rise, which in terms of the whack the exchequer will take as a result (£1bn a year) makes the trimming of the price of a pint look like small beer.
You don’t crow about that kind of stuff by mistake, and certainly not for two or three budgets in a row. You really have to mean it. The thing that it’s hard not to take personally is this: he could choose to spin it all in a very different way.
The Budget itself contained plenty of good green stuff that could be put at the centre of a coherent economic narrative around jobs, resilience and sustainable long-term growth – if, that is, you wanted to. £7.6 billion is to be spent on renewable energy up to 2020 (not a new announcement, but neither is the meat of the stuff he chose to mention about shale gas). A full fifth of the UK’s £310 billion infrastructure wish list is offshore wind – a pipeline that’s stocked with rail projects as well.
My point is this: the story Osborne chooses to tell, and the audience to which he pitches it, matters. A chancellor with public stock in drilling for fossil fuels being a good thing is likely to be much less amenable to long-term targets to green the economy – as major investors asking him for a 2030 decarbonisation target are finding out to their chagrin.
The government’s own figures estimate that green businesses contribute some £122 billion to UK GDP and that it’s one of the very few bits of the economy that’s actually showing decent growth. There’s a spectacular market opportunity for the countries that go gung-ho for these once-in-a-generation new markets. This stuff is widely accepted across Whitehall, but it never makes it out of Osborne’s lips, and that’s very irritating.
I’m afraid some of the blame has to go to Labour. Ed Miliband’s comebacks may have been jolly, but they did nothing – again – to hold Osborne’s feet to the fire on his green-walloping. The simple fact is that Osborne is cantering around digging up fossil fuels because no-one is doing a good enough job at telling him not to.
Again, it’s not necessarily that Labour aren’t good on the environment – Miliband has, for example, committed to the aforementioned 2030 target – but they must get out there and talk about it when it really matters.
If Labour wants to own a differentiating economic story firmly pitched around the export, employment and environmental lifeline of resource productivity, low-carbon goods, services and technology – and preventing the UK from bundling £billions into high carbon ‘assets’ that will become white elephants as climate policy tightens – then they could.
But unless the Eds start responding to Budgets from a different platform to that upon which the anti-green chancellor resides, they’re rather letting him get away with it.