Alistair Carmichael writes…We should be talking about how Lib Dems won record investment for renewable energy

Yesterday I voted against the inclusion in the Energy Bill of a target for decarbonisation to be met by 2030. In truth I think that the setting of a target would have been sensible and that is why I am content with it being party policy. So why vote against it? I didn’t do so because I am a bad person who is determined to ignore party policy. The truth is a little more complex than that.

Firstly, it seems to be conveniently ignored by many that the Bill does include a power to set a target but in 2016 – i.e. two years later than one could be set by having one on the face of the bill. The great issue of principle seems to be whether we set a target either fourteen or sixteen years out from the 2030 deadline.

Secondly, it is conveniently ignored that, before Ed Davey argued for and won the case for a decarbonisation target to be put into the Bill, no target was proposed. Not in our manifesto, not in the Coalition Agreement, not in the draft Energy Bill Ed inherited.

So why not vote for a target now in 2014, not 2016? Bluntly, because energy policy is a package. The package contains some things that I believe to be more important than a two year delay in setting a government target and which will make a much greater difference in stimulating investment in low-carbon energy than target setting. Principal amongst these is the £7.6 billion that is being made available through the Levy Control Framework – a trebling of support for low-carbon investment by 2020. This will give investors greater certainty about the future of renewable energy in the UK, and will ensure that we remain consistent with our renewable energy target for 2020.

Subsidies for renewable energy are not something that most Tories are very keen on and on this scale most of them absolutely hate it. They would love a reason to unstitch the deal that Ed Davey won for us and I have no doubt that the £7.6 billion would be the first thing that they would go for. Yesterday morning Tim Farron told me that the deal that had been negotiated by Ed Davey was the best one possible. Other colleagues agreed.  If the amendment had been passed, the “best deal possible”  would have been put in jeopardy.  It is (to be generous) a logic that defeats me and which ignores the realities of being in a coalition government.

Yes the party voted for a decarbonisation target in September 2012. Based on that Ed Davey fought long and hard to secure an amendment in the energy bill to have the power to set a decarbonisation target in 2016. It was not everything we wanted but it is entirely consistent with party policy. Then the Yeo amendment was tabled which went further. What were we then to do? Rip up our agreement?

Sticking to deals in government matters. Last July the hero of the Tory backbenchers was Jesse Norman when he organised their rebellion that led to the abandonment of House of Lords reform. By November, when we had voted down the boundary revisals in compensation for the loss of Lords reform (and which might have made the difference of twenty seats for the Tories in 2015), he was not seen by his colleagues as being quite so clever.

In politics it is important to know what you believe. In government it is just as important to know what you can achieve. Ed Davey achieved record investment. I voted to boast about that. I apologise to no one for that.

* Alistair Carmichael is the MP for Orkney and Shetland and Liberal Democrat Chief Whip.

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  • Peter Watson 5th Jun '13 - 9:04pm

    Surely the stock answer to “Why did I vote against Lib Dem policy?” is “Because I’m a Lib Dem MP” 😉

  • One of the key reasons for our claim to be different, better, and representing “the new politics” has been the strength of our internal party democracy. As Chief Whip, Alistair, I think you are at a crucial point in the system to ensure we keep that reputation. I see your point in regard to politics being about building alliances, but we have rather let this attractive element of being a party (ie we have ideology, and policy to bring about that ideology – people see what we are about, and vote for that) disappear down the plughole. There is a consequence to all this – each time we do this, another slice of our support disappears, and one day, I shouldn’t wonder, even the loyal voters of Orkney and Shetland will decide enough is enough.

  • Alistair Carmichael 6th Jun '13 - 12:10am

    Tim13 – If that is what you think is attractive about being in a party then I am afraid I disagree.

    What I find attractive about being in this party is that we can get things done and not just strike high-minded poses.

    Since you mention my constituency let me give you the local context for this vote. We have an enormous potential resource for wind , wave and tidal power in the Northern Isles. The major barrier to developing that is transmission charging. This is a wall against which I have banged my head for the last decade. As a minister in government I was able to persuade Ed Davey, as another Liberal Democrat minister in government, to listen to people other than officials in his own department, namely the renewables developers in Orkney and Shetland. As a result of that the government set up a working group that has now established that we have extra costs that mean we need a different transmission charging regime. This is a major advance. I am hopeful that we can get it and I am working to ensure that we do. If we get that system there will be money to pay for it as a result of the deal that Ed Davey secured.

    You seem to think it would be worth jeopardising that prospect in order to introduce a government target sixteen years out from its end date instead of fourteen. I think you are wrong and I do not believe I would be serving my constituents if I did otherwise.

    As Paddy always used to remind us, I joined a political party and not a debating society! I am not going to let the best be the enemy of the good – especially not when it is as good as this!

  • jenny barnes 6th Jun '13 - 8:56am

    Always good to “get things done”. How’s that secret courts thing going?

  • Peter Watson 6th Jun '13 - 9:54am

    “So why not vote for a target now in 2014, not 2016?”
    Because Lib Dems are in government now, and may not be in 2016.

  • David Wilkinson 6th Jun '13 - 10:37am

    The questions members of the public will ask, can I afford to turn my heating on?, will government will still allow the rip offs by the energy companies? what about the 30,000 excess winter deaths this winter just gone?
    Sadly no answers in this article.

  • Malcolm Todd 6th Jun '13 - 10:50am

    @David Wilkinson
    Also nothing about nuclear proliferation, the war in Syria, or House of Lords reform… But that’s perhaps because it was an article about decarbonisation and the promotion of renewable energy. Everything can’t be about everything; we’re not all Buddhas.

  • Alistair – thanks for this post – and even more for stopping by to debate it.

    Please correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t it a basic operating principle of Parliament that it can’t bind its own future actions in any way; in other words that it remains sovereign at all times.

    If this is correct then any target for 2030 – by which time goodness knows what the political or energy scene will be – is meaningless because any parliament in the meantime could simply amend or abolish the target. So, much better to go for tangible measures to stimulate low carbon investment. Well done!

  • David Allen 6th Jun '13 - 6:47pm

    A spirited defence of what is claimed to be a hard-fought compromise deal. Is it credible? If we had voted it down, would we have ended up with a better deal, or a worse deal?

    Frankly, I simply don’t know. I realise that this makes me sound like an ignorant fellow. I realise that it would be much more impressive if I were to declare roundly that it was all hypocrisy and lies, or alternatively declare that it was all a magnificent demonstration of Liberal Democrat politics in action, like most people do. But I’ll be honest instead. I haven’t a clue.

    And if I don’t have a clue, what level of understanding will the average voter have? How will the voters know whether “we done good” or “we done awful”?

  • David Pollard 6th Jun '13 - 8:03pm

    I unerstand what you are saying, Alistair. It would have helped if Ed Davey, when he was interviewed, had been open enough to say that this was the best deal he could get from the Tories and the LibDems would be pushing for an X% reduction in CO2 emissions from electricity production in the next parliament and the figure would be voted on by Conference and included in the next manifesto. I still find it difficult to understand why LibDems are not more open about Coalition negotiations, what we could get and what we couldn’t get.

  • Alistair – thanks for your reply. In terms of your issue about transmission charges – obviously a move forward. Schemes here in the SW of England also suffer from this. Well done – often these ways of re-working figures can achieve spectacular results. A good example was here in the SW when Robin Teverson wa an MEP. He had also been “banging away for years” about Cornwall’s economy being significantly weaker than Devon’s for many years. So only when that divide was recognised by separating the figures could Cornwall be recognised for (then) Objective One funding.

    “The best the enemy of the good”? This is a thought I often have in mind when looking at schemes at Town level, and if you never achieve anything because it is not exactly what you think is right, you also encourage others to do the same, and you end up with not even a “debating society” but a serious punch-up in certain circumstances! Incidentally, I always thought Paddy was being rather self-justifying when he made that comment many years ago!

    So, yes, compromise, but the problem with the specific under consideration, is that the failure to now set a target for power decarbonisation, as has been hammered home, is that it allows the “dash for gas” through the door again, where the earlier date will actually discourage it. To say “it’s only a two year difference” in setting the targets doesn’t acknowledge this huge problem. The issue seems to be what investment you encourage and what you discourage, and expert opinion suggests that where the agreement (between us and the Tories) was pitched gave more to dash for gas than it did to investor encouragement in renewables. And, we at Parliamentary level are trying to sell that as a victory, whereas, presumably, we didn’t really get what was needed for a long term advance of renewables at the expense of fossil fuel generation. Our party’s overall drive on this front is to decarbonise power, so that electricity can be used in a green fashion to power all sorts of applications which currently are still fossil fuel powered.

  • nuclear cockroach 9th Jun '13 - 1:35am

    Frankly voting against new emissions targets looks more like a comprehensive victory for the global hydrocarbon suicide pact than anything else. I pity our descendants and the world we will bequeath them.

  • Steve Bolter 10th Jun '13 - 5:48pm

    If there had been a majority for Tim Yeo’s Amendment, then surely those who voted for the amendment would also vote for the whole Bill as amended. Hence, unless Tory ministers were to find some way of obstructing the progress of the Bill, ( I am not well up on Commons procedures, but there do seem to be ways Governments can ignore the House) the Bill would be passed as amended. Were ministers to obstruct the Bills passage, they would give grounds for a vote of no confidence, which could easily succeed.
    The important point is that the commitment to low carbon electricity generation need to be made NOW, so that investment flows into low carbon generation, not into the dash for gas.
    Should the Tories get into power at the next General Election, they would be unlikely to abandon a existing 2020 low carbon target that had been the basis of investment decisions for the previous two years, but if no 2020 low carbon target had been set and most investment had gone into fracking and the building of gas fired generation, they would be likely to set a 2020 carbon target that would ensure gas fired power stations could run flat out beyond 2020.
    I have a fear that some Lib Dem MPs are so irrationally anti nuclear, that they would sooner have fossil fuel generation and global thermal runaway, than a low carbon target that would encourage investment in renewable and nuclear electric generation.

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