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Ditching green policies to win voters would be a mistake


3 min read

One major question emerges from last week’s by elections: are the United Kingdom’s political parties capable of dealing with anything truly important like climate change and achieving net zero?

As Rhodes burned and much of Europe baked, commentary on the results began by focusing on the short term. Does the fact that the Conservatives managed to sneak a victory in Uxbridge mean they could spring a surprise result at the next general election? Could Labour snatch defeat from the jaws of victory once again?

In this sense, too many commentators have treated the result like a football match. The Tories were expected to go down three-nil. A senior cabinet minister told me he was convinced that would be the score just hours before the results.

The fact his team scored a cheeky late goal, making the score two-one, flattered to deceive. It looks good as a headline, but it masks reality. The Conservatives were trounced, with a twenty-one-point swing against them, revealing Labour’s enormous opinion poll lead is real.

Starmer appears to think that changing what is an astonishing victory into an anti-green news-cycle of recrimination is the smart play

Don’t get me wrong, we live in volatile times. A year ago, Boris Johnson was still prime minister, and his short-lived successor now feels like a bad dream. Four years ago, the Labour Party was trying to persuade us a revolutionary socialist should run the country. Things can and do change. But taking last week as a snapshot, you must conclude Keir Starmer is heading for No10.

Given that, what’s worrying is the short-termist reaction of both the main political parties to the “surprise” win by less than five hundred votes.

The loudest voices have once again been those focused on the tactics, rather than politicians with vision and a willingness to educate.

Perhaps inevitably Rishi Sunak appears to be listening to the siren voices to his right. They tell him the anti-ULEZ vote in Uxbridge proves he can cling on, but only by focusing on unworkable immigration policies, a war on woke and turning his back on green policies.

Keir Starmer appears to think that changing what is an astonishing victory into an anti-green news-cycle of recrimination is the smart play. This from the party who told us they were going to champion the green economy.

To add to this depressing picture, opportunists on both sides leapt on a narrow win and tried to claim we can ease up on attempts to deal with climate change.  

They are wilfully turning their back on yet another bleak week of climate news, where Sir Robert Watson from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that reducing global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is a pipe dream and we will face untold destruction as a result.

Trying to get our economy to net zero is an epic task. It will require creativity and bravery from politicians, educating us all and taking us through several pain barriers. It also requires both parties to form a consensus that the other will not overturn at the slightest whiff of electoral advantage.

I can hear the scoffing from politicians who say this is a luxury viewpoint – and people aren’t ready to hear the message. They certainly won’t be if no one is serious about delivering it. Would Clement Atlee and Margaret Thatcher have been so successful if they did not see part of their job as being educators and turned back at the first difficulty?

It is hard not to believe that history will take a dim view of politicians on all sides if they turn their backs on dealing with the greatest problem facing humanity because of a single by-election result.


Sir Craig Oliver, former director of politics and communications at No10, now head of strategy and reputation at FGS Global.

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Read the most recent article written by Craig Oliver - It’s all over for Rishi Sunak