The climate crisis will rightly dominate many speeches at Labour Party Conference. But can the party find a way to reach out beyond the conference hall, and connect with the public on the biggest issue of our time? The public is generally convinced that man-made climate change is real and they do think ‘the environment’ is important – and no, it isn’t just a middle-class issue anymore.
So, people do think climate change is important, but outside of freak weather events and the current gas crisis it usually isn’t a ‘here-and-now’ concern for them. That should be no surprise: we can hardly expect people to worry about the planet all day long as they rush between jobs, pick up their kids from school, try to pay their bills, sort benefit payments and deal with any number of stresses in their lives.
Labour is particularly vulnerable to looking like it is made up of touch, middle-class, metropolitan elites. The party is in an uphill battle to prove that it understands people’s everyday lives and shares their values. That’s why it must show it is relentlessly focused on improving people’s lives in realistic, tangible ways – whether that’s improving public transport or reducing heating bills. That means leading with the here-and-now benefits of tackling climate change, because that speaks to people’s more immediate and tangible priorities.
Labour will also want to talk about the economic opportunities of climate change, i.e. ‘green jobs’. Labelling jobs ‘green’ can sometimes add a new, modern flourish to speeches and soundbites. But it’s unlikely the public understands what most of these are – and worse, it can sound misleading or unrealistic (there actually aren’t that many jobs making wind turbines). Labour could help to spell this out: call a spade a spade and a ‘green job’ a ‘good job’ – in construction, plumbing or manufacturing, building car batteries, insulating homes and replacing boilers.
Finally, Labour’s plans to regenerate the North and Midlands are often packaged as a ‘green industrial revolution’, presumably to win over voters by appealing to an industrial past while looking to a brighter future. There is perhaps some residual, cultural memory in parts of the North where the first industrial revolution took hold, or where manufacturing is still a significant presence and source of pride. But many people in these communities approach transformational change not with hope, but with fear. Fear for the decline of the industry they currently have and the community that relies on it – not hope for some new, as yet undefined, ‘green’ industry.
People are unlikely to believe politicians can create new jobs to replace old ones, let alone ensure that people made redundant can slot into those new jobs. Given our history, that fear is well-placed. That means talk of revolutions and rapid transformations is actually unlikely to win their support. Labour’s rhetoric must offer reassurance, stability and security, even if that is less exciting for the conference hall. Of course, Labour still has to develop policies that meet these aims. It should not be selling false hope to communities while letting already struggling communities suffer once again. There is a lot more work to do to make sure the transition really is as just as we always say it’s going to be.
It will take radical change to tackle the climate crisis – and, given the Conservatives’ record, only Labour will be able to do it. But that will require the consent of the electorate. And the electorate won’t give Labour that consent unless the language connects. That’s why, while Labour will want to speak to the membership and the conference hall later this month, it must also speak beyond it to the country it seeks to govern.