Kier Starmer criticises Conservatives’ ‘sticking plaster’ approach to the energy transition

Image: Labour Party

Starmer spoke at UCL this morning (5 January), less than 24 hours after Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivered his own new year speech in a bid to quell “apprehension” among the general public amid the cost-of-living crisis, NHS crisis and ongoing strikes.

While Sunak did not mention energy or the environment in his pledge for a “better future for our children and grandchildren”, focusing instead on the economy and immigration, Starmer spoke at length about the need for better policymaking on energy efficiency, renewables, nuclear and cleantech.

He thanked “green entrepreneurs” and “the builders and retrofitters, insulators and engineers who will bring us energy independence and cheaper bills”, as well as key workers and those hosting Ukrainian refugees.

Starmer, unlike Sunak, did not come armed with a set of new short-term priorities. Instead, he promised an update, including a full manifesto, in the coming weeks, and spoke of one vision – reforming Westminster and ending “sticking plaster politics”.

He accused the Conservative Party of proliferating a “short-term mindset” and of avoiding “icebergs on the horizon”. Such metaphorical icebergs, he elaborated, include low worker morale, extra pressure on the NHS, energy security and the response to climate change.

On the energy price crisis, Starmer said: “Thank heavens [that] we have a price freeze this winter – that Labour’s campaigning in the summer eventually brought the Government to our position and its senses. But, truth be told, the price freeze is the perfect example of sticking plaster politics. It is necessary, of course. But, nonetheless, it is an expensive, last-minute fix. Painting over cracks in our energy security that have been on display for years.

“Don’t get me wrong, nobody criticises the Government for the effects of the war in Ukraine. But the war didn’t scrap home insulation, the war didn’t ban onshore wind, and the war didn’t stall British nuclear energy. The Tory Government did that.”

Responding to this comment, Conservative Environment Network’s senior climate programmes manager Jack Richardson Tweeted: “Labour [are] going big on energy and climate. Conservatives have [a] strong track record here, but need to get back to it.”

Starmer argued that the Government had missed its chance for “early action” on the price crisis. He said that Labour’s approach would be to set a clear mission (for example, ending unabated fossil-fuelled electricity generation in 2030), backed with clear communications of the opportunities of action. Building on that would be private investment, reform of related policies, and measures to ensure that long-term visions could not be tampered with by those with vested interests.

The Conservative Party had, before Starmer’s speech, said he should “stop playing politics and back our plan for a better future that delivers for all”.

Tory party chair Nadim Zahawi has accused Labour of failing to set out “positive, detailed, long-term plans” to improve Britain and of skirting around “people’s priorities” – which he defined as reducing borrowing, reducing crime and implementing stricter immigration controls. As noted above, Labour has promised an updated manifesto in the coming weeks.

Policy recommendations

MPs on the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) have today published a major new report outlining recommendations for accelerating the energy transition and setting out the social and economic benefits of doing so. They are urging Sunak and his Cabinet to set stronger home energy efficiency targets through to 2025; set a clear end-date for oil and gas licencing; mandate oil and gas firms to cut emissions and make it easier to develop onshore wind and tidal energy projects.

The recommendations have been welcomed by green economy groups including Green Alliance, the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit and Uplift, as well as some businesses, including E.ON.

E.ON UK’s chief executive Michael Lewis said: “Energy efficiency numbers have fallen drastically since the ‘cut the green cr*p’ days almost a decade ago, with millions of homes missing out on upgraded loft, cavity and solid wall insulation. Many households are paying far more for their energy needs and we must reverse that trend and deliver the £9bn  in support promised by the Government’s 2019 election manifesto.

“We know what works and how to provide support at scale. It’s in the Government’s gift to ensure the new expanded Energy Company Obligation scheme can start delivering for people from April and we need confirmation of the design of ECO plus as soon as possible so our supply chains can gear up in readiness.”

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