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Party politics position as election season kicks off

The UK is heading into election season, with the date set for July 6. Up for debate are the competing interests of the Conservatives and Labour Party.

The parties must manage internal groups and their demands, in order to see how they can mesh with an appeal to voters.

The stability pitch

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak set out his – slightly damp – stall yesterday outside No 10.

The current government, he said, has “reformed education, and our children are now the best readers in the Western world. We prioritised energy security and your family finances over environmental dogma and our approach to net zero.”

Sunak also noted the decision to halt HS2, instead investing in local transport “that you can actually use”.

That pragmatism pitch is likely to play a key part in the Conservative’s election plans. Sticking with the current government is a vote for security and certainty, Sunak has said, continuing his recent theme of Conservative stability.

Unfortunately for Sunak, and the Conservatives, the opinion polls suggest Labour will be the clear winners of the General Election.

A recent Ipsos poll says 72% of people are dissatisfied with how Sunak is performing and this sense of unhappiness rises to 81% for the government. Sunak also suffers from a low net favourability, at minus 51, according to YouGov.

The decision to call a snap election in just six weeks’ time is unlikely to have done Sunak many favours within the party. The Conservatives will have to rush out candidates in a number of constituencies, with 68 MPs from the party opting out of a re-election campaign.

Wedge issue

The Conservatives have been in power for 14 years and the party has evolved considerably, catalysed most notably by the Brexit referendum in 2016.

The small government austerity of the initial years has morphed into a more interventionist approach. Boris Johnson took a significant step in this direction, with his outlining of the 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution.

The decision by Sunak to dial down energy transition aspirations, pushing back the adoption of EVs and cancelling HS2, while also cutting taxes and talking on migration, demonstrates a move to the right within the Conservative movement.

The Conservatives have found grist for their political mill by asserting Labour’s plans play into a “Chinese made” energy transition.

There is a risk that energy becomes more of a wedge issue, used by both parties to mark out their differences.

Broadly speaking, Labour and the Conservatives agree on energy policy.

Both, for instance, back the move to a decarbonised power grid – albeit with some differences around timing. They have backed the creation of the National Energy System Operator (NESO), due to launch this summer, which will provide new oversight of electricity, gas and hydrogen grids.

Whether they agree on oil and gas will be put to the test as the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill risks running out of time – unless Labour gets on board. Any bills unfinished before Parliament is dissolved, on May 30, will be lost.

Politics to the fore as Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak prepare to duke it out

Windfall question

There are differences on oil and gas, although both agree on a supposed need for taxes on windfall profits.

The Conservatives opted to extend the tax for another year at the last budget, while Labour would increase it slightly. Crucially, Labour would also strip out certain capital allowances, in addition to opposing new exploration licences in the North Sea.

However, there are clearly differences of opinion within Labour, just as there are within the Conservatives.

Given the likelihood of a Labour victory, attention is turning to how to inform Labour’s plans. Unite the Union, showing excellent timing, issued a call for “no ban without a plan” last week, saying Labour’s plans to end licensing were “premature and irresponsible”.

At the same time, other groups are pushing for more progress on climate change. Greenpeace, said voters should demand “the climate leadership that we deserve”.

Within Labour, different groups will by vying for commitments from the leadership. Keir Starmer and his advisors will weigh up the electoral needs behind such decisions.

Some Labour MPs will not sit on the same panel as an Equinor official talking about carbon capture. Others have been slightly more willing, as can be seen in some of the dispute around the closure of Grangemouth.

Labour has shown a clear willingness to engage with decarbonisation, with Starmer including the launch of GB Energy among his six pledges. Given the much-needed drive to expand infrastructure in the UK, can Labour afford to shutter the North Sea?

Ultimately, whoever wins the election will need to make some tough choices about who to alienate within their own supporters. With Labour’s attempts to play down its more grandiose pledges and trumpet fiscal stability, a long-term reduction in hydrocarbon revenues may be a challenge too far.

Research by Lauren Sutherland.

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