Polling suggests Sir Keir Starmer is likely to become Labour’s first prime minister since 2010. But as he prepares for government, there are still some gaping holes in his policy platform.
Starmer is often criticised for his apparent lack of vision but in one particular policy area – energy – a toxic mix of short-termism and big statism already threatens to fill the visionless void, with potentially enormous consequences.
The Conservative government has set in stone its target of reaching net-zero by 2050. It’s very unlikely Labour will renege on that promise if it takes over the reins. It might even accelerate the timeline, such is the party’s enthusiasm for the project. Nonetheless, details of how decarbonising the world’s sixth-biggest economy top-to-bottom in a quarter of a century will work are hard to come by.
It’s hard to imagine a much more difficult political environment for chasing net-zero. The recent memory of supply chain disruptions thanks to Covid and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – as well as China’s insulting braggadocio over Taiwan – make strengthening Britain’s energy security all the more important. The ongoing inflation and cost-of-living crises leave consumers more sensitive than ever than to volatile energy prices.
Meanwhile, the cost of the government’s temporary “energy price guarantee” stretches into the tens of billions. Even with the biggest tax burden in half a century, subsidising energy bills eats up unsustainably large chunks of state revenue, even for a government happy with big spending. In that context, uprooting Britain’s use of fossil fuels and shifting entirely to renewable energy is a mammoth task. Any government hoping to take on the challenge will need a water-tight policy plan and a crew of sharp minds to lead the effort.
Enter Ed Miliband, serving as Labour’s shadow secretary for climate change and net-zero, who recently filmed himself playing a Bob Dylan song on a ukulele near a wind farm to promote his plan for a new nationalised energy company, GB Energy.
Setting aside Ed’s questionable vocals, this approach does not inspire confidence. Nationalisation as a one-size-fits-all convenience is a tired idea whose time has been and gone. Non-ideas like this rise to the fore in the absence of clear leadership. Starmer has failed to set a direction for Labour’s energy policy, so Miliband is free to swing for the big-state default option of nationalisation.
For his part, Starmer wants to “make Britain a clean energy superpower.” That seems to mean ramping up onshore renewable energy infrastructure. “Look, I want to see more solar farms across the countryside,” he told the National Farmers’ Union. An enormous site in Bramley & Silchester, Hampshire recently became the latest addition to Britain’s burgeoning portfolio of solar farms. Seemingly, under a Labour government, there are plenty more to come.
Is carpeting Britain’s countryside with solar panels a scalable and sustainable solution? Innovation in the green energy sector is fierce. New breakthroughs lie around every corner. What happens when, a decade down the line, some bright spark invents a new kind of solar panel which generates double the electricity and takes up half the space? Dismantling already-built solar farms and starting again will be slow and costly. Even before then, the wisdom of importing en masse solar panels made in China (whose government spends its time investing in coal plants and committing genocide) in order to help “save the planet” is questionable at best.
The next general election is unlikely to be an avalanche victory for Labour, as some suggest. Still, there is a high chance Starmer and Miliband will be in government in 18 months or less. At some point, they will have to move on from ukulele-based campaigning and implement their environmental policy. Starmer would be well-advised to consider the longer term now, and map out his energy policy in suitable detail, rather than entering government without a plan and leaving Miliband’s rabid enthusiasm untethered. Balancing the pursuit of net-zero with the need for energy security and the urgency of keeping bills low will be a near-impossible feat. GB Energy and a flood of Chinese Communist Party-sponsored solar farms won’t cut it.