Bibi van der Zee meets Caroline Flint, Labour’s shadow secretary on energy and climate change
There is a point in her constituency from which Caroline Flint can see both the chimneys of Drax and an array of wind turbines. She mentions this when I ask whether she likes a wind turbine herself (she doesn’t find them “aesthetically terrible”).
And then she goes on to make an interesting reference to the coal mines which pock her area of South Yorkshire. “I don’t want to draw too many comparisons but 100 years ago when people came to Doncaster and said there’s coal under there, well, it’s interesting how 100 years later something which is providing clean green energy arouses such concern when there are many communities – including my own – who for the sake of the whole country took on the responsibility of powering the industrial revolution.”
Caroline Flint criticised ?the Tory-led government?s decision to target town halls with reckless frontloaded cuts
The anecdote is a little incoherent because, I think, her politician’s instincts to say nothing, and to say it as often as possible, are fighting with her very passionate desire to say “Come on, get over yourselves and just get on with it!” The coal-mining history of Flint’s constituency has given her an unusual perspective on what energy can mean to a community and to a country – both the good and the bad. She knows that something that is ugly can also mean jobs. And it’s precisely this that makes Flint such an interesting recruit to the green cause.
I interview her in her office in Portcullis House, just over a year after Ed Miliband has appointed her shadow secretary on energy and climate change, the latest, as she points out, in a long cycle of cabinet and shadow cabinet positions. “I’ve been in the home office, employment, public health, and housing.” (She’s forgotten Europe.) She is talkative, focused, and as strikingly good-looking as ever.
She is also pretty clear about why Miliband chose her. “I knew he wanted someone who could raise the profile of the area, but also find a way we could move forward. Not just preaching, saying you can’t go on holiday and all of that, but asking how do we anchor this so that people can see there’s a real personal interest there, both in term of their bills, but also their jobs and their futures.”
She is, she says, “a very practical person” and adds that: “trying to give people the means to help themselves is very important to me”. Environmentalism of the ‘deep green’ variety is not her thing, and she doesn’t talk about any great moment of revelation where environmental issues became important to her.
I don’t get the sense of a deep knowledge and understanding of environmental issues but rather of a competent shadow secretary’s mastery of her latest brief. And her voting record shows a complete lack of interest in the subject until 2005 or so (she is usually absent or abstains on green votes). But when the Stern report came out and the scientific evidence was, in her words, “captured so that you couldn’t ignore it”, she began to vote fiercely in favour of action and was sometimes, after that, to be found amongst that minority urging ‘stronger, faster and more immediate’ action at that.
To a practical mind, an issue like this is, after all, fairly simple. I ask her if she personally worries about climate change, and she exclaims “of course! My own youngest child is 24, and like all parents, I want to leave the world a better place. I joined the labour party so that I could leave the world in a better place than I inherited and for me being in politics is all about that.”
And for Flint, once you’ve made up your mind, you just get on with it. She can’t understand why the government has not, for example, included a decarbonisation target in the energy bill. To her, the government should be setting the direction of travel and naming the challenge, so that industry can rise to it. “When I was in Housing and we were setting the zero-carbon targets for housing, the construction industry was saying well, okay we don’t know much about that, but we’re going to get behind this. Once you have the target you have this dynamism, this energy.”
The official Labour position is pro-nuclear, pro-community energy and wind, and pro-decarbonisation targets. Flint would like to see far tougher regulation, and she also favours an energy pool instead of the current system of vertically integrated companies where the large companies own the power stations and are invisibly selling to themselves. Her position is extremely close to the place where a number of green campaign groups and writers are gathering and she admits to finding Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth surprisingly sympathetic to her views.
She is pretty unimpressed by recent Tory shenanigans around the newly-published energy bill. “The protagonist-in-chief in all this seems to be George Osbourne… but you know the prime minister is David Cameron, he has invested a huge amount of personal capital into this, the husky photos and everything. Where’s his leadership, where’s No. 10 knocking heads together?”
Alright, she admits that there is some comedy value to it all. It was Flint who compared events to The Thick of It, and she was caught on camera laughing aloud at one Commons’ performance by the energy minister John Hayes (although she suspects that things are rather going to his head now).
She is more concerned however about the long-term impact on the green sector and on British business. “In the last month or so we’ve started to really see businesses who normally like to have these discussions behind closed doors and the fact that they’re now flexing their muscles and coming out and saying we are really worried about what’s going on, that’s really worrying.”
For Flint it’s should be all about opportunity. After the Climate Change Act in 2008, she points out, there was a huge upsurge in growth in the green sector which is now on the point of stalling again. For her the government bickering has been damaging both in its effects on business, and in the message it sends to the public. “We have to find a way to bring the public with us – and that’s why my emphasis has been on, we can do right by the planet, but we can also do fantastic things for opportunities for people in this country as well if we’re willing to be leaders rather than followers.”