Lib Dems should outflank Labour on climate change

Be radical on climate change - but not on other issues.

The Liberal Democrat leadership election has been largely focused around disagreements about how the party should position itself in relation to Labour.

Despite five-years in coalition with the Conservatives, the party clearly has more in common with Labour. However, the question of political positioning should be a matter of electoral strategy rather than ideological preference.

Wera Hobhouse entered the race with the slogan “abandon equidistance”. The party’s spokesperson on the climate emergency argued that the Lib Dems should clearly state their preference for cooperation with Labour over the Tories.

Since Hobhouse dropped out of the race, Layla Moran has talked up her desire to be “more radical than Labour”.

She wants to appeal to voters Labour are “taking for granted”. She appears to be eyeing the young voters who backed Corbyn.

Meanwhile, former leader Tim Farron and the acting co-leader and leadership candidate, Sir Ed Davey has wisely warned against swinging to the left, especially before Labour has developed a clear policy program. 

A glance at the electoral map further highlights the potential folly of any tilt to the left in search of disillusioned left-wing voters.

Of the 90 seats where the Lib Dems came second in the 2019 General Election, 81 are held by the Conservatives.

There is no route to electoral success without appealing to soft Conservative voters. At the same time, the Lib Dems also need to squeeze the Labour vote in the very same target seats.

It would be dangerous to risk a fragile reputation for sensible economics among tactical voters for minor electoral gains in university towns.

That doesn’t mean the Lib Dems should not seek to out radical Labour. The answer could be to outflank them on the most important issue of the next decade – the climate emergency.

The threat of climate breakdown is infinitely more urgent than Brexit. Therefore, there is reason to predict another electoral pact with the Green Party and Plaid Cymru around the climate emergency rather than Brexit. 

There are signs that the Lib Dems may be granted the opportunity to establish themselves as the most serious party on dealing with the climate emergency.

The Labour leader has already raised the prospect of a review of the 2030 net zero emissions target.

A spokesperson for the Labour leader stated: “The last manifesto made a number of really important commitments on this, which Keir supported, but we lost the election and Labour lost five years in government to tackle climate change.”

Could Labour be forced to water down their policy on the one issue that most exercises young social liberals?

Of course, the focus on net zero targets rather than the policy action to achieve them is “simplistic and misleading”.

The Lib Dems need to be ready to pounce on any potentially weakened green new deal, without giving up a reputation for economic competence in the eyes of soft Tories. The voters the Lib Dems need to chase want to fix capitalism, not destroy it. 

Both Lib Dem leadership hopefuls are committed to the party’s pledge to achieve 80% renewable energy by 2030 and to putting the climate emergency at the forefront of the party’s appeal.

Moran has even talked of replacing the treasury with a ‘Sustainability Department’ while Davey has proposed a whopping £150 billion green recovery plan after Covid-19.

No matter which candidate wins the leadership election, the party should avoid swinging to left. It’s time to concentrate on outflanking Labour on the climate emergency.

Joseph Dodd is a Liberal Democrat activist based in London

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