Why Labour made the right call on downgrading the £28bn climate investment figure

Labour’s climate and environment plans are still vastly more coherent and ambitious than those of the Tories.

Rachel Reeves and Keir Starmer

Was Labour’s downgrade of its climate ambition last month a political coup, an own goal or simply a necessary response to changed economic circumstances?

The answer depends on your view of Labour’s communication priorities as it approaches the next election.

As Labour approaches the election, it needs to simultaneously attack the Tories’ record, be honest with the public about the state of the public finances, be crystal clear about Labour’s intention to manage the public finances responsibly, and offer hope that under a Labour Government things will finally get better.

Attacking the Tories’ record is almost too easy.

Under their leadership, the economy has barely grown. We have lived through 15 long years of stagnation. Workers take home no more than they did heading into the financial crisis, leaving the average worker £10,700 a year worse off than they would have been had growth continued on its pre-crisis trajectory.

The fault can clearly be laid at the Conservatives’ door. Labour bequeathed a growing economy in 2010 but the life was sucked out of it by David Cameron and George Osborne’s harsh programme of austerity. That policy survives to this day and is behind the parlous state of public services and deepening social harm as well as economic stagnation.

A needlessly hard Brexit, Liz Truss’ mini budget and Rishi Sunak’s failure to take any meaningful action to boost the economy complete the picture of a Government increasingly more interested in populism than it has been in sound economic management.

The result, Reeves said, will be the worst inheritance of any incoming government since the war. A national mission will be needed to kickstart the economy.

“I recognise the dire inheritance we would have if we win the election. I am not going to be able to turn everything round overnight. We are going to have to grow the economy. There will be a relentless focus on what we need to grow the economy,” she said.

More positively, she argued that “people will see a real change in our economy under Labour. People will see something they haven’t seen for a long time: an economy that’s growing and creating prosperity.”

The altered commitment on spending for the green prosperity plan should be seen in this light. The original £28bn a year annual spending plan had become a focus of Tory attacks, and would have remained so to the election had it not been cut.

Downgrading the figure allowed Labour to issue an attack on the Tories’ record – had the economy remained even at 2021 levels of health the cut would not have been needed.

Regardless of the cut, Labour’s climate and environment plans are still vastly more coherent and ambitious than those of the Tories.

Where Rishi Sunak has fruitlessly sought political gain in rowing back on climate commitments Labour’s plans remain ambitious despite the cut budget.

The named components of the £28bn policy all remain in place — a state-owned energy company called GB Energy costing £8.3bn, a £7.3bn “national wealth fund” to invest in the decarbonisation of heavy industry and £1.5bn over three years for renewable energy companies hiring workers in Britain’s industrial heartlands.

The only concrete policy to have been reduced in scope is the party’s Warm Homes Plan, slashed from £6bn a year to £1.3bn. Labour has now pledged to insulate 5mn homes over five years, climbing down from the previous ambition of retrofitting 19mn homes over the course of a decade.

Ed Miliband, shadow net zero secretary, argues that he will still “be the energy secretary who can genuinely say Britain is leading the world” on climate change.

Labour “is going to move the dial on climate,” he said. “It will take us longer to achieve what we wanted to achieve,” but “we’re going to invest in the green economy, and we’re going to do so in a way that is fiscally responsible.”

There are two caveats.

One is that Labour may need to do more to balance its attempt to prove its fiscal responsibility and competence with a pitch to build hope for what can be achieved under a Labour Government.

While most Britons (60%) say that it’s time for a change at the next general election – including a third (35%) of those who backed the Conservatives in 2019 – and Labour is well ahead on most policy areas, including the climate and environment, Labour should note some caution on expectations of real change.

While 44% told YouGov last week they want a Labour Government (against 22% who want a fifth Tory term) only 34% think Labour will do a better job of running the country. There may be a need for a more hopeful tone as the election approaches to give people cause to vote for Labour as much as against the failed Tories.

The second is the climate crisis itself.

2023 was the world’s warmest year on record, by far.

Dr. Sarah Kapnick, Chief Scientist of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, argued in January that global government action will need to ramp up to address climate change.

“Government policy can address both emissions, but also actions to reduce climate impacts by building resilience,” she said. “We will continue to see records broken and extreme events grow until emissions go to zero.”

In all likelihood Britain and every other country will need to ramp up efforts to reduce emissions and mitigate climate impacts in coming years. It remains true that global climate plans are bending the curve of global greenhouse gas emissions downward but remain insufficient to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

Yet for now Labour is right to balance its communications. Most of the public recognise it is time for change and that the Tories have failed to provide effective, competent and fiscally responsible government. Labour’s pitch must prioritise competence and responsibility to appeal to the swing voters essential for a Labour win.  

Balancing this with a need to offer hope of meaningful change is Labour’s challenge. Its green prosperity plan still offers that – whatever the headline spending commitment there is no doubt that serious, science based, ambitious climate action will form a central pillar of the next government.

That the way there involves accommodation with political and economic reality is not cause enough to doubt Labour’s intentions. It is instead reason to campaign all the harder for the change of government we need, and for each of us to do what we can to highlight the need for ambitious climate action.

Mike Buckley is the director of the Independent Commission on UK-EU Relations and a former Labour Party adviser 

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