The British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who is currently campaigning for re-election to the leadership, has released his Energy and Environment manifesto. This document is poorly informed about renewable energy costs and does not describe a viable climate policy. In choosing to privilege principle over practicality Mr Corbyn has offered the Conservative government a considerable political opportunity.
Parties in opposition, and even those with very little actual political representation or any realistic chance of increasing it, can steer national policy. The American socialist party, as Milton and Rose Friedman once suggested, was in some respects the most influential US political party of the early decades of the twentieth century, with every major economic plank of its 1928 manifesto eventually enacted by either the Democrats or the Republicans (Free to Choose, (London, 1980), 286–287). UKIP is likely to be seen by future historians as one of the more substantively remarkable political parties in modern British history, and Nigel Farage’s career as one of only a handful that has ended not in failure but in something like success.
Without the prospect of power, such parties are not, as the Friedmans put it, hampered by the need for “expediency and compromise”, and can afford to be parties of “principle”. They thus serve as an important indicator and creator of opinion, opinions that can, and I say this without approving or condemning the fundamental wisdom of either the American socialist party or of UKIP, ultimately carry the day.
Read in this light, Jeremy Corbyn’s recent manifesto, Environment & Energy (7 September 2016) is both informative and potentially alarming. It suggests that there are still significant numbers on the left of British politics, and probably elsewhere, who believe that there is a simple and untroubled consistency between low carbon policies and that agenda pressing for what Corbyn’s manifesto refers to as “social justice”. This view was clearly stated in the current manifesto’s parent document, Corbyn’s 2015 statement, Protecting our Planet, which observed that:
The things we need to do to protect the environment also protect people and enhance our lives.
Mr Corbyn’s new statement describes these needful things as consisting of the following: leading global climate action by reinforcing commitment to the Climate Change Act of 2008; re-instituting the Department of Energy and Climate Change; creating a 65% target for renewable electricity by 2030 (up from 35% in 2020); and producing an industrial strategy to create 300,000 renewable energy jobs and an industry that is the world’s foremost provider of renewable energy technology. Ancillary, though obviously secondary objectives, include a low carbon house-building programme, the revival of municipal trading in energy, and the planting of 64 million trees.
Needless to add, all this involves the blanket rejection of fossil fuels, perhaps understandably for coal, but perversely, since it offers reduced emissions and low cost heat and light, a minimisation of natural gas use, and a total ban on fracking.
Obviously, this is not a practical manifesto; hardly anything in these proposals, apart from the tree planting, could actually be achieved or achieved without severe economic pain. This is not a plan for office, but an exercise in the rhetorical evocation of a principle, namely the belief that there is no conflict between the “collective interests” of human beings and “protecting the planet”, these words again coming from the 2015 statement, though implicit in the slightly more circumspect 2016 iteration.
This evocative vision begins to dissipate as soon as the manifesto descends to concrete details. For example Mr Corbyn’s document calculates that the transition to low carbon electricity, by which is meant an overwhelmingly renewables based system, would imply “no significant additional costs”. That is a literally incredible statement, and while 2030 is sufficiently far off for the claim to be unfalsifiable – no one can say for sure – it is manifestly in conflict with present evidence on renewable costs, which are high and powerfully regressive in their effects. On current government estimates even the existing 35% renewable electricity target will result in domestic household prices for 2020 that are some 42% higher than they would be in the absence of policies, while the employer’s of the household breadwinners will see prices 77% higher, with an inevitable downward pressure on wages. The problems afflicting the steel industry from Redcar to Wales are simply the shape of things to come (see Energy-intensive Industries: Climate Policy Casualties, GWPF, 2016).
Since the costs of renewables are strongly non-linear, due to the best sites being used first and to system management problems, Mr Corbyn’s extreme 65% renewables target for 2030 would almost certainly increase the price impacts to levels that would be politically explosive. Obviously, no party policy-maker calculating normally and with even a remote prospect of power could afford to gamble on Mr Corbyn’s hope that there would be “no significant additional costs”. But Mr Corbyn is not calculating normally, in this or in many other areas.
Nevertheless, the Conservative government might be tempted to tack in the direction of Corbyn’s views. This would be not only a tactical error, since they would gain few votes, but also a strategic mistake, since it would hinder their ability to encourage the economic growth that is necessary during Brexit and will secure broad-scale electoral support in the future. Indeed, the short, medium, and long term interests are all obviously better served by appealing to reason, and pointing out that, with the possible exception of nuclear and the special case of natural gas, which is cleaner but not clean, the costs of current low carbon technologies do in fact imply a very significant degree of conflict between the environmental and the social agendas. Renewable energy is very expensive indeed, and its capital intensive nature means that its owners, whether they are private shareholders or the state, will have command over a much larger share of the total capital wealth in the economy than has been the case for a very long time. Big Renewables will make Big Oil look quite small.
Mrs May is in a very good position to make this general argument, which would form an interesting contrast not only with Mr Corbyn but with the views of her predecessor Mr Cameron. She could very well seize the agenda. There is, after all, no absolute rule to the effect that parties of principle must prevail against those offering more humdrum mixtures of expediency and compromise. If the principles offered are, in fact, in conflict with human requirements, such parties will not be the indirect legislators of the future, but only historical oddities, and the latter are much more common than the former. For every American Socialist party, for every UKIP, there are dozens of quaint failures, such as Sir Richard Acland’s once-prominent British Common Wealth Party, whose arguments for the general nationalisation of land not only failed to catch the imagination but now actually form their own counter-argument by example, as if to say “This way lies disaster”.
Members of the Labour party might also want to reflect, as the GMB union appears to be doing, that extravagant green gestures, however principled, suggest an impracticality that is functionally identical to callous indifference to the basic welfare of those on lower incomes.