The Labour leadership contest and energy policy: where’s the beef?

The contenders to succeed Ed Miliband fumble for a line on energy


When nominations for the Labour leadership and deputy leadership closed last month, MPs came under pressure to endorse as many candidates as possible to ‘broaden the debate’ about the party’s future. They duly obliged by advancing the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership race, and a range of other contenders to the contest for deputy leader.

Since then, some of those Labour politicians and activists who called for a broader debate have failed to meet the lofty ambitions they set for their party. Concerns outside forces are attempting to influence the contest and allegations of negative campaigning have abounded. There has at times been an element of farce to proceedings, as those ostensibly opposed to Corbyn’s candidacy squabble about how to take on his candidacy.

The candidates for the leadership have themselves often been complicit in this unedifying spectacle. But perhaps alarmed by signs the public is writing Labour off, they have begun to put a little bit of meat on the bones. Liz Kendall gave a well-regarded speech on devolution; Jeremy Corbyn offered an ambitious proposal on higher education; and Andy Burnham flirted with the idea of comprehensive social care potentially funded by a levy on estates. 

Today it was the turn of the fourth contender Yvette Cooper, with the Shadow Home Secretary setting out her stall on energy and climate change. Cooper’s current frontbench position has left her distant from the major economic and social issues over the past five years, something that has influenced the course of her non-ideological – critics would say bland – leadership bid. Moving onto green issues is an attempt on her part to challenge that impression.

Cooper’s agenda is certainly not lacking for ambition. She promises a review of economic policies to ensure growth does not exacerbate carbon emissions; help for cities and towns to decarbonise; a commitment to build more ecotowns (remember them?) and fresh impetus for the carbon capture and storage industry. She also pledges greater action to tackle air pollution in London.

However, the roll-out of Cooper’s climate agenda suggests it is borne more of electoral necessity than any deep thinking about energy policy. The leadership hopeful castigates Amber Rudd for buying into “conspiracies” about climate change, a strawman charge that does not fit with what more informed observers think is the real problem with the Energy Secretary’s attitude to green matters. Cooper has also declined to set out in detail her thinking on contentious issues like shale, suggesting she is overly wedded to a ‘do no harm’ strategy when it comes to the Labour selectorate.

In fairness to Cooper, it is not as if her rivals have displayed much innovative thinking on the subject of energy. The surprise leader of the pack Corbyn dreams of renationalising the sector, while Burnham has only really emphasised a moratorium on fracking. Kendall, who has sought to position herself as an original thinker in the contest, does not appear to have much interest in the topic altogether. As with the contest as a whole, those of us awaiting our ballot papers are left to wonder: dude, where’s the substance? 

Photograph: Yvette Cooper


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