Labour's £28bn question
Can the party sell its 'Green Prosperity Plan'?
This year has been relatively light on Labour psychodrama, but, never to be totally outshone, the to and fro over the party’s green investment plans have grabbed a fair share of attention.
Though June saw a slight adjustment to its spending profile - Labour will now ‘ramp up’ to £28bn a year over the next Parliament, should it win power - the Green Prosperity Plan remains. But so to do reports of uncertainty over Labour’s long-term commitment to it. Both worsening public finances and the fraying of political consensus on Net Zero after Uxbridge has put its plans under pressure.
On the one hand, this is slightly paradoxical. After all, the investment forms a notable part of the party’s program for economic growth - the only way the public finances can be pulled out of their current doom spiral.
It could also be essential inoculation against future voter backlash on Net Zero. If the phase-out of petrol cars and gas boilers for EVs and heat-pumps is to be made painless in the next Parliament, government has to pick up the tab and reduce up-front cost and friction. Keeping these looming targets but not funding them properly is a recipe for electoral Seppuku that would make Uxbridge look like a tea party (ask the German Greens).
All that said, political parties are not long-term rational. Oppositions are there to win elections here and now - and Labour has lost four on the spin. As Conservative attacks escalate, advocates for the Green Prosperity Plan (GPP) should be required to show that it is not just popular in principle but that it can survive the heat of an election campaign.
So what does the evidence suggest? Given my day job in polling and public attitudes stuff (where i look a lot at the politics of Net Zero around the world), I have spent a bit of time this year looking at attitudes to the GPP.
As far as I can see, three main themes emerge.
1. On message: Labour has stories available to it that can survive attack and win votes on this area
GPP sceptics can occasionally be heard ruminating on Labour’s failure to find a ‘narrative’ on the policy. To the extent that this is reasonable, there are many mitigating factors for it. The good news, though, is there are several profitable messaging strategies open to Labour in this area – including ones that can overcome Conservative attack.
Take an experiment I helped run with YouGov earlier this year. This split a large group of voters into four demographically identical groups. Each group saw just one possible Labour message selling the £28bn/Green Prosperity Plan. Crucially, they all also saw an aggressive anti-GPP Conservative attack message.
All the messages tested were arguments Labour has already used to sell the policy, albeit sporadically, I didn’t invent any of them. They were: a climate message (the GPP is necessary to protect future generations from climate change), a ‘middle out’ growth message (it will boost growth by putting more money in the hands of ordinary people), an ‘energy bills’ message (it will cut your bills) and an energy independence message (it will increase Britain’s energy security through home-grown renewables).
The Conservative attack message was their current aggressive pitch, as seen in their favoured newspapers: all this Labour spending will bankrupt the economy, you will be made to pick up the tab through taxes, etc.
After exposure all message groups take a survey and we can compare their ‘outcome’ attitudes to a control group who see nothing.
In the current environment, with Labour twenty points up, a decent message holds Labour’s lead steady, although naturally they’d ideally want something which went further. Only movements more than 2% +/- among the sample at large are statistically significant; 4% +/- for Con 19 voters.
So what do we see?
Firstly, all pro-GPP messages hold up ok in the face of attack. In no group do we see a statistically meaningful drop in Labour vote share (the changes on message 1 and 3 are inside the margin of error and nothing much to worry about). All meaningfully increase the perceived credibility of the policy.
The most striking results, though, are for growth and energy independence messages. The former pushes Labour’s overall vote share up a further 3%. The latter increases it by 5%, while taking their share of Con 19 voters up 6.6% to 18%, despite those same voters seeing an aggressive Conservative attack.
It's hard to over-sell the significance of this. Even when voters are forcibly exposed to a really full-on Tory attack on the £28bn, Labour has messages available to them which not only hold their current electoral position, but boost it further still - reaching into the Tory vote and bringing more over to their side.
Of course, getting heard is the hard part, but it’s reasonable to surmise that if the party can be united on this issue, settle on a GPP story and turn the volume up on it, it can be an asset.
How to explain this? Well, all messages speak to a salient problem for voters - but that’s especially the case for energy independence. The Russia/Ukraine war has made average voters far more cognisant of the dangers of Britain being at the mercy of foreign markets for our energy, tapping into a wider sense of vulnerability they feel in their lives to forces beyond their control. ‘Growing more of our own’ is also a tangible, credible solution (and here renewables are far more popular than North Sea oil).
As importantly, Labour is helped by the other side. This is not 2010 or 2015. The Conservative brand is atrocious; it has to work very hard to get a hearing. It’s possible to observe in focus groups the kind of dynamic which haunted Labour in the Corbyn years: a statement can generate agreement until it’s revealed to be a Conservative party position, at which point half the people expressing support resile.
All of which is an opening for Labour and brings me onto the next point.
2. On borrowing: if navigated properly, the levels of borrowing involved is not a weakness
Here the trauma is understandable – opening up borrowing as a dividing line is not a risk free gambit. The party has been harmed in all four of its election defeats by perceptions of being untrustworthy with the economy. It’s obvious any green investment program should meet a reasonable set of fiscal rules.
But if it’s ‘the optics’ – not the maths - they are worried about, there are several things working to the party’s advantage.
The first is that public attitudes to, and the salience of, borrowing are far more permissive than in 2014, especially for investment in a country which is falling apart at the seams. This blunts the effectiveness of Conservative attacks.
We can see that in the results of a conjoint experiment with YouGov. Here we show a sample of voters a borrowing-based Conservative attack message on Labour against the GPP. They also see one of four possible Labour responses. They’re asked which is most convincing. In the analysis we can see which rebuttal most regularly beats the attack.
The result: every single Labour rebuttal is more convincing to voters than the Con attack itself. This is not what you would see if this were a potent or salient attack line!
Neither does salami slicing the GPP make much sense electorally, even leaving aside the brand risk of looking shifty. The notion that, say, halving its price tag doubles its economic credibility is really daft when you consider the way voters differentiate - or rather don’t - levels of government spend, especially once into the billions.
Indeed, as below, it’s possible to serve voters the same information about the GPP – including a CCHQ attack line – with just the amount of spending being varied, and get absolutely no effect on outcome attitudes whatsoever. It is basically all just big numbers. Chopping away for optics sake therefore risks a lot of internal strife for no gain whatsoever.
3. On co-benefits: the jobs don’t work?
Very finally, among the more confident assertions you hear on this area concerns jobs; that green stuff should be sold through the prism of the jobs it creates. This is as close to a comfort zone that Labour and its friends has on climate.
This is entirely logical. The only thing is, I’ve simply never seen a piece of UK message testing where jobs does that well. You can see the results of one such test below. In short, it has a bit of a credibility problem compared to other messages.
I think it’s the case for a few reasons. Firstly unemployment is low, so the salience of the subject is low, outside a few specific constituencies. Secondly, no matter how you package it, it can struggle a bit for believability with voters, being the sort of ‘jam tomorrow’ promised to them by politicians for yonks. It might be different when the jobs exist.
Until then, it’s something the party and wider movement probably need to wean itself off slightly.
For all the furore, the above suggests there probably lies more risk in inaction than action for Labour.
Only 9% of voters, according to More in Common, currently have solid awareness of Labour’s GPP. If the electorate at large only hear escalating Conservative anti messages, it could be a problem. On the other hand, if they hear a confident, united Labour case first, the opposite is true.
That is always more easily said than done in a unfavourable media environment, but it is possible. The worst place to be in is to keep the policy but awkwardly hope it never comes up.
Likewise on borrowing, if the party draws a ring around the spend and says ‘this is a unique pot of cash for a unique purpose’, distinct from day-to-day spend, they can bring voters along. If instead under questioning all they can do is shuffle their feet a bit, voters might start to believe they will be asked to pick up the tab through taxes.
And yes of course a clearer policy plan is needed on ‘how to spend it’ (Sam Alvis is ever interesting on this). After all, an approach that tells the government machine to prioritise growth above all else likely produces a slightly different list of projects than one focusing primarily on industrial jobs or emission reduction.
That itself, though, is only a tension that can be held in check by Labour holding firm on its present commitments. Which probably means finding a slightly more confident voice in selling their plans to the public.
In that task, at least, though they may never have as much room as they hope, they have far more than they fear.
If anyone would like the data that sits under the graphs shown here, please DM me on Twitter.