Labour’s green growth plan risks rift with major union backer GMB

GMB was the biggest donor to Labour in the most recent donations period, but a renewable energy firm provided the second largest donation

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Labour’s green growth pledge to make the UK fossil-fuel free by 2030 could spark major tensions between the party and one of its main union backers.

Labour’s new slogan “a fairer, greener future” has been visible throughout the current party conference, but a union which provides a significant portion of the party’s funding has criticised Keir Starmer’s commitment to green policy.

GMB boss Gary Smith has said the party’s energy policy “needs to deliver for working people” and questioned whether Labour has a plan for workers in the energy sector who will be impacted.

GMB provided the largest single donation to Labour in the last quarter but a renewable energy firm provided the next largest donation.

Meanwhile, a climate campaign group within Labour has criticised the party leadership for blocking a debate on energy nationalisation and called for the party to be “bolder on the energy sector”.

Climate plan ‘must live in the real world’

At Labour conference yesterday, shadow secretary of state for climate change and net zero, Ed Miliband, said a Labour government would, “make Britain the first country in the world to achieve the target of zero carbon power by 2030,” which he said would save £93 billion on energy bills and make the UK a “clean energy superpower”.

They will achieve this by doubling onshore wind, trebling solar power, quadrupling offshore wind, plus tidal, nuclear and hydrogen power. The party will also spend £60 billion over a decade on a vast home insulation programme, he said.

While likely to be popular with the bulk of the membership, it could put Labour on a collision course with a major financial backer, GMB, which represents a significant number of workers in fossil fuels-linked industries.

GMB is one of the UK’s largest trade unions and one of the Labour Party’s main union-affiliates, providing around £3 million since 2019, slightly less than Unite and Unison, but still one of the party’s largest sources of funding.

In a statement released ahead of Miliband’s speech, GMB raised a number of questions about the party’s climate policies, including asking what percentage of solar panels and wind farms would be manufactured in the UK?

They also asked if the party would ban fracking completely, including imported fracked gas and ethane, and if so, “what’s your message to workers in the vital chemical manufacturing sector who depend on imported fracked gas as feedstock for the industry?”

In his conference speech, Miliband criticised the Conservatives for reversing the ban on “dangerous, expensive” fracking, highlighting that they had banned it in 2019 “because they said it was dangerous”.

“Now they’ve moved the goalposts. Under the Tories - and I’m not making this up, either - moderate earthquakes are just fine. That’s their position.”

GMB also questioned where a new “global centre for renewables” would be situated, highlighting the existing facility for offshore oil and gas in Aberdeen, and asked if the party will oppose new licences for drilling in the North Sea, as the policy would seem to suggest.

“If so,” they asked, “what’s your message to thousands of workers in Aberdeen and the North East of England who work offshore?”

While Labour has stressed that the green pledges would also drive economic growth and create up to half a million jobs in the UK, it is unclear whether this would involve transitioning workers in fossil fuel-linked industries into new, green jobs.

Gary Smith, GMB General Secretary, said: “Labour’s energy policy needs to deliver for working people or it won’t deliver at the ballot box. It’s all well and good talking about the shift to green industries, but where’s the plan for the tens of thousands of energy workers who will be affected?

“So far, the supposed jobs bonanza in renewables manufacturing has been a sick joke at the expense of UK workers, with authoritarian regimes across the world hoovering up contracts that should be completed here at home.

“We need a plan that understands the value that energy workers bring to their communities and our country. This plan must live in the real world, or it is doomed to fail.”

GMB was the largest single donor to Labour in the second quarter of 2022, the latest period that political donations have been published for, having given £290,125 in May.

However, the second largest donation received in that period came from Ecotricity, a renewable energy firm which has plans to build three major solar power grids across England.

Ecotricity has previously donated to Labour, but the latest donation of £200,000 in April is the largest the company has ever provided and its first six-figure donation since 2015.

Calls for climate plans to go further

While the plan has been met with criticism for failing to account for workers in the fossil fuel industry, climate campaigners have also argued the policy doesn’t go for enough to “meet the scale of the climate crisis.

Labour for a Green New Deal has been pushing for the party to adopt a policy of public ownership of energy, but several motions put forward including this commitment were blocked at the party conference.

Chris Saltmarsh, National Coordinator for Labour for A Green New Deal, said: "While these announcements are a welcome contrast to Kwarteng’s reckless budget, Labour should be bolder on the energy sector. The party should commit wholeheartedly to public ownership of energy, so we can tackle the cost of living crisis and meet the scale of the climate emergency.

"It’s encouraging to see the party recommit to rail nationalisation, and to no longer rule it out in the energy sector. But we can’t take half measures: we need public ownership of energy now, to stop billion-pound handouts for the hands of profiteering energy firms, and to decarbonise our economy at the pace that’s needed.

"From Tory strongholds to Labour members, the public support public ownership of energy. The party should get behind this popular and necessary policy, as part of building an election-winning coalition."