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Labour’s loss in the recent Uxbridge by-election prompted Party leader Keir Starmer to criticise the expansion of Ultra Low Emission Zones (ULEZ), which he claimed had led directly to its defeat. Urging Mayor of London Sadiq Khan to reflect on the policy, Starmer claimed that there was “something seriously wrong” with Labour policies appearing “on every Tory leaflet”.
While ULEZ is not itself a net zero measure, the Uxbridge by-election indicates that, to many senior figures within the Party, including Starmer, a trade-off exists between appearing as a fiscally responsible party and adopting a proactive approach to addressing climate change. Labour recently watered down its £28 billion green prosperity plan, citing rising import costs and borrowing restrictions, and has confirmed that it will not challenge or revoke any of the new oil and gas licences that the Conservatives have proposed.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, have pledged to “max out” the country’s North Sea oil and gas reserves, issuing 100 new drilling licences which, according to Oxfam climate policy advisor Lyndsay Walsh will “send a wrecking ball through the UK’s climate commitments”.
While the Prime Minister has so far rejected calls to lift a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, net zero-sceptic voices within the Party remain hopeful that the Uxbridge by-election will represent a turning point in the Government’s embrace of net zero; Craig Mackinlay, leader of the backbench Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG), told the BBC that “there’s been a real focus on some of the cost of these measures”, and that he planned to urge the Prime Minister to “rethink” banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars.
Neither major party has taken seriously the concerns of younger people, who are more likely to rank climate change among the most pressing political issues; a poll by Conservative think tank Onward found that younger voters are more supportive of tough climate action, as 29% of respondents aged between 18 and 34 said that they “strongly supported” the 2050 net zero target, in contrast to just 20% of respondents aged over 65. Onward’s report also found that 53% of 18-24 year olds would be less likely to vote for a party which abandoned net zero commitments, in comparison with 23% of 35-44 year olds.
Indeed, a November 2021 ONS survey which found that 75% of British adults were concerned about climate change concluded that younger people reported higher levels of concern regarding the future of the planet, as 37% of those aged 25 to 34 years and 34% of those aged 35 to 49 years reported being ‘very worried’, a figure which fell to 24% among those aged 70 or over. Moreover, 77% of respondents aged between 16 and 24 and 80% of respondents aged 25 to 34 reported having made lifestyle changes to alleviate the effect of climate change.
Prolonged inaction by both major political parties has already sparked a heightened sense of disillusionment among many younger voters, many of whom are already seeking new ways to vent their frustration at a political system which allegedly prioritises the interests of older, property-owning demographics, more likely to be perceived as a reliable voting base.
Sam Knights, an organiser at Green New Deal Rising, told Byline Times that “young people today are growing up in a world dominated by various crises: the crisis of inequality, the crisis of democracy and the climate and ecological crisis”.
“We know that real, systemic change is necessary in order to address these challenges. But right now, neither of the two largest parties are offering the change we need”, he added.
Describing the Conservatives’ approach to net zero as “deeply irresponsible and short sighted”, and “frankly embarrassing”, Knights argued that the Government was “attempting to make climate change the next culture war and fuelling a moral panic about the policies of net zero”.
“Government ministers have turned into obsessive Twitter trolls, banging on about the ‘eco-mob’ whilst their policies continue to trash our future”, he continued. “Young people will not forget the damage they are doing to our planet”.
He also criticised Labour’s perceived inability to effectively challenge the Government’s climate inaction, arguing that “young people are clearly frustrated by the direction of travel in the Labour Party and their constant u-turns on climate and economic policy”.
“We know that the crises we face require systemic solutions, but the Labour Party keeps crumbling under the slightest pressure from the right wing press and bad faith actors”, he added.
This was affirmed by George Carew – Jones of the UK Youth Climate Coalition, who told Byline Times that “Starmer and Reeves need to recognise that they depend on the youth vote to get them over the line in every relevant constituency, and by watering green policies down it just won’t give hope to young voters”.
“Labour have taken young people for granted in the past because they think we won’t vote Conservative on the whole, and whilst this is true, bad climate policy means young people just won’t vote at all”, he continued.
He also argued that direct, disruptive protests were a consequence of major parties failing to provide a democratic avenue for younger people to express their concern over climate breakdown, stating: “I’d say the actions from Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion that politicians complain about are a direct result of young people not being given hope – if you’re scared, people will go to increasingly extreme lengths. So it’s crucial politicians give hope to young people to stop this happening”.
Eleanor Salter of campaign group Labour For A Green New Deal told Byline Times that younger voters were “unwilling to compromise on the climate crisis,” arguing that “for them, it is a matter of life and death”.
“Starmer’s insistence on watering down, if not abandoning, their commitments, is alienating young voters from the party, but not from politics. Young activists will continue to fight for a socialist Green New Deal”, Salter argued. “If Labour are to win their votes, the party must commit to radical climate action”.
Representatives from all three organisations argued that young people had found themselves disengaged from the democratic process by the refusal of mainstream politics to implement substantive policies aimed at transitioning away from fossil fuels. Sam Knights called for “radical, bold and creative solutions”, claiming that “over the last few years, British politics has become more and more detached from the reality of our lives. The long term effect of this will clearly not be positive on our political culture”.
Indeed, the climate policies implemented by our Government have skewed away from the demands of the British people, 70% of whom support reaching net zero by 2050, and towards satisfying the interests of various opaquely funded think tanks and industry lobbying groups which have become increasingly politically influential.
Policy Exchange, which in 2017 received the equivalent of $30,000 from oil and gas multinational ExxonMobil, engaged in an attempt to persuade the Government that its North Sea Transition Deal, announced in March 2021, should permit the continued exploration of new oil and gas fields. This ran contrary to the recommendations of the International Energy Agency, which has stated that no new fossil fuel exploration is compatible with a global 1.5 degrees C warming target.
In February 2021, Policy Exchange’s Energy and Environment Unit briefed Anne Marie Travelyan, then-Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change at BEIS, on a report it had published the previous year entitled ‘The Future of the North Sea,’ which advocated for redeploying oil and gas assets for the development of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCUS) technology. Travelyan’s office reportedly stated that Policy Exchange’s research “rightly acknowledges opportunities for the oil and gas sector to support the energy transition”, despite ongoing controversies over the effectiveness of CCUS.
Speaking at Policy Exchange’s summer party back in June, Rishi Sunak also credited the think tank with drafting legislation aimed at suppressing climate change protests, which culminated in the arrest of 2,000 people and imprisonment of 138 people in the year leading up to April 2023.
Younger voters are becoming increasingly disengaged by a political economy which prioritises the interests of industry lobbyists and vested interest groups over the democratic process. As the Conservatives consider further delaying net zero targets to placate influential backbenchers, and Labour prioritises fiscal responsibility over delivering a coherent green transition, younger people are being increasingly locked out of a deeply unrepresentative system.