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How Sir Keir Starmer is learning from Australian Labor on how to stop net zero costing him the election

Unable to turn around dire opinion polls, Rishi Sunak is increasingly reaching for “wedge” issues to try and close the gap by putting Labour on the wrong side of public opinion.

While the Prime Minister’s attempts to do so on Channel small boats backfired badly last week, the Conservatives feel they still have plenty in their armoury, including on green issues.

Since the Tories’ unexpected victory in the Uxbridge by-election after turning it into a referendum on mayor Sadiq Khan’s ultra-low emissions zone, Mr Sunak has signalled he is willing to water down his environmental policies to ensure the public is not encumbered by higher costs, while attempting to portray Sir Keir Starmer as an eco-zealot who will hit voters in their pocket.

Isaac Levido, protege of “Wizard of Oz” Sir Lynton Crosby, in charge of campaign strategy, may be seeking to recreate the tactics employed by Australian conservatives in 2019 when they snatched victory from a Labor party that was too radical on climate change.

However, some experts think Mr Sunak risks instead mimicking more closely the Liberal/National defeat of 2022, when the governing coalition lost affluent voters to Teal independents and handed victory to Labor, in large part due to weakness on the environment.

Latika M Bourke, a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in London, said the parallels between Britain and Australia should not be overstated because “the dependency Australia has on fossil fuels and mining generally makes climate a more potent issue”, while the nation does not have nuclear power stations.

However, the UK is beginning to see the formation of a debate that has taken place in Australia for some time in which the Tory right have “jumped on to” the climate agenda after being “distracted” by Brexit.

Secondly, the UK is beginning to have an “honest debate about the cost of climate mitigation measures”.

“We were onto this much, much earlier and it does feel like on that front you’re playing catch up,” she said.

“Having said that, I think the populations of the EU and UK are overwhelmingly pro-action.

“The extreme weather events, which have increased since this was a really potent issue in Australia around 2010, changes the electoral dynamic around the environmental agenda.”

Despite green policies appearing a more likely vote winner than loser in the UK, Sir Keir’s Labour is nevertheless wary of what happened Down Under.

UK Labour has been talking to its Australian counterparts since the defeat in 2019, including a detailed study of a review which found the party got too complacent about victory and began adopting policies, including on the environment, that “took them away from the voters”.

A senior Labour source said: “The Tories obviously had a lot of cross pollination with their counterparts in Australia for a very long time with (Sir Lynton) Crosby and so on, their tactics are very similar, so there’s a lot to be learnt.”

Australian Labor’s 2019 review found that the working-class voters turned against Labor when it signalled it could cancel an ongoing major new coal mine by the Indian energy company Adani as part of an immediate ban on new sites.

By contrast, Sir Keir has committed to no new oil and gas licences but stressed North Sea fossil fuels will continue to play a “crucial” role in energy supply while banning new drilling permits.

A senior Labour source said the party was wary of also being too radical by supporting environmental policies backed by think-tanks and activists groups that highlight the “important moral case” of saving the climate “irrespective of where the voters are”.

“(Australian Labor) were ahead in the polls, the bookies’ favourites, and because they were so confident they were going to win the election they started to develop their strategy to satisfy stakeholders rather than focus entirely on the voters.

“As a consequence they started to add to their manifesto causes that were supported by stakeholder groups.

“That started to inevitably take them away from the voters on environmental and other issues.”

The source said the party have learnt from Australia the fundamentals, such as keeping green policy “focused entirely on voters”, hence Sir Keir ditching Labour’s reportedly commitment to introducing Ulez-style clean air zones across the UK and delaying plans for a £28bn green growth plan.

“The most dominant issue in British politics is the cost of living so you have to develop policies that help the environment and get clean energy and help you deliver your outcomes on net zero that support people through a cost of living crisis and don’t add to it.

“The risk for us is always that we would take such an ideological position that we would make people’s lives worse.”

“Can we go into a general election promising to deliver on clean energy by 2030, hit net zero by 2050 and make that an electoral asset to us?

“Yes we can but it’s conditional on not making people’s lives worse in the process.”

While there is a risk for Labour, Mr Sunak’s new colder approach to the green agenda has sparked concerns among Tory MPs in the so-called Blue Wall of affluent southern seats that they could lose their seats.

John McTernan, Tony Blair’s former No 10 political strategist and a senior adviser at BCW, suggests the Liberal Democrats could replicate the success of the Teal independents who picked up voters “alienated” by slow action on climate change and the “anti-woke” agenda.

He said it appeared to be a defensive tactic designed to boost turnout among the Tories’ core vote but that it could cost them in these seats.

“A wedge issue not only needs to divide voters, it needs to divide them into your favour.

“Picking a fight on the environment has attractions to the Tories because the game that they are in is trying to make sure they consolidate the 25 per cent of the vote they have got and try to take it closer to 30.

“It is defensive not offensive because it doesn’t get you any new voters.

“It might mitigate some losses.

“The danger is it could be wedging yourself against your own voters.”

Tory election expert Lord Hayward echoed these concerns, saying upper middle classes were “hacked off with the extreme right-wing policies” and then “latched on to the environmental issue”.

“There is some parallel but it’s not direct and total.

“But there’s no question environmental matters impacted on what here would be the Surreys and the Cheshires and the Harrogates of this world around the UK.

“There is no question that there is an unease there among those people, that if you go too far you endanger yourself to the Lib Dems.”

The peer however said Mr Levido, who maintains “very strong links” with Australia, would ensure the Tories would not go too far.

“He will guide both in terms of how right-wing (the party will be) and the point at which one gets close to tipping on environmental matters.

“He will be key in that sort of circumstance.”

Meanwhile, Mr Sunak’s decision to grant new North Sea oil and gas licences has a positive effect elsewhere, with north-east Scotland Tories “over the moon”, Hayward adds

That means the change in positioning is not yet a “risk”.

“At the moment the Tories haven’t decided where they are going to come down,” he said.

“It’s all well and good criticising the opposition but sooner or later… they have to make their views known.

“The important thing at the moment is that the Tories are floating options.”

Luke Tryl, director of More In Common, said while it was “sensible” of the Tories to try and tie Sir Keir to eco-protesters such as Just Stop Oil.

“But if they come across as Morrison anti-action (on climate change) it’ll backfire simply because the anti-action group in The electorate starts so small.”

Mr Tryl also warned that the attacks on Labour may have worked in the Jeremy Corbyn-era “but it is harder when you can’t imagine Starmer painting someone orange”, in evidence that the party has succeeded so far in avoiding scaring voters.

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