Should green be the new colour for Labour?

On the 21st of September a life-long red emerged as a green. At a World Green Building Week meeting Gary Neville spoke of how building his own home led him to develop a green conscience. So strong is this zeal now that his new eco-home is on track to reach the lofty heights of Level Six of the Code for Sustainable Homes. Mr Neville’s experience reflects a broader trend in private individuals and businesses. It is predicted that by 2014 the green economy will have grown by 40% since 2007, as in tough fiscal times the private sector perceives the financial and ethical benefits of the less-with-more mantra of environmental planning. But this remarkable growth is in danger of being lost as Cameron’s promise of ‘the greenest government ever’ is tested to its core. The green economy grows despite the recession, perhaps even because of it, but without government investment in long-term infrastructure this will prove a short-lived boom. As Cameron looks to U-turn on the third runway, and Osborne champions gas energy over renewables, the government displays the same short-sightedness that New Labour supposedly showed on the economy. As such, Ed Miliband has an opportunity to seize the green initiative and hold the government to rights on their environmental promises. This is a must for economic, ethical and electoral reasons.

Firstly, environmentalism could and should be the key strand of an alternative approach to the economic crisis. In contrast to Osborne’s swingeing of the public sector, a more balanced relationship between state and private business should be promoted. Government investment in fibre optic cables and renewable energy supplies would provide vital foundations for green industry, which in turn will provide growth, augmented tax revenues, and much needed jobs.

Moreover, while Osborne reiterates the need to strengthen Britain’s resilience to volatile world markets, he fails to recognise that any work in this direction will be undone if we find ourselves plagued by rising energy costs, as finite energy resources finally run dry. The Confederation of British Industry believes that green business could halve our trade deficit by 2014-15 – the potential of renewable energy to make us more self-sufficient is clear.

In ethical terms, any party that claims to represent ordinary working people has a duty to champion green infrastructure. Central investment is vital to ensure that the benefits of environmental planning are not confined to the Gary Nevilles of this country, to a limited band of wealth that can afford to go green. The large-scale acquisition of wind energy would reap rewards for the whole national grid.

At a global level the effects of global warming are already being felt. Michael Zammit Cutajar, the former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, has noted that: ‘climate change is not just a distant threat but a present danger’, as global warming already wipes a predicted 1.6% annually from global GDP. Just as poorer, developing countries like Bangladesh and the Pacific Islands are feeling this pain now, it will be poorer individuals and smaller, emerging businesses that will suffer most when the effects of climate change and resource scarcity really hit Europe.

Thus, for the benefit of working people in this country, a corner must be turned in terms of how seriously we take environmental issues. He may be clinging to the flotsam of his 2010 manifesto, but Nick Clegg was right at his party conference to highlight the decline of environmental issues in mainstream debate. There’s a perception that ‘the economy’ and ‘the environment’ are separate policy areas. This is damaging, as it relegates environmental sustainability below economic stability, leading to suggestions that the two are simultaneously incompatible. Hence Osborne’s speech at the 2011 Conservative Party Conference, in which he stated that ‘we’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business’. On the contrary, environmental planning should be a variable considered in all areas of economic policy.

At a perhaps more cynical level, if nothing else championing the green agenda could prove a key vote winner at the next election. Gordon Brown lost large swathes of middle-class business people in 2010. As private green industry booms pro-green policy has the potential to claw back at least some of these votes. Ed Miliband has already started in this direction, as he spoke of sparking a ‘green industrial revolution’ in The Huffington Post last week. Labour needs to vehemently pursue this line. In the same way Cameron inches to the right to accommodate UKIP sympathisers, so Labour should move to accommodate Green Party supporters, many of whom moved away from Labour at the last election. Labour are infinitely more established than the Green Party; a rebranding as the mainstream eco-party could attract the vote of idealist Green Party activists.

For economic, ethical and electoral reasons then, there is a great incentive for any of the major parties to re-cast themselves as the party that can realistically deliver green investment. In this age of broken trust in politics, we must seek to replace the culture of inane global summits and missed environmental targets with investment in tangible environmental infrastructure.