Policy insights: How to just stop oil and win an election

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Last week one of our clients (who is campaigning to end all new oil and gas projects in the UK) asked our policy team to look at why political parties are either not promising to take action or rowing back on promises they have made.  

They also asked us to take a look at this seemingly odd letter from the Home Secretary to Sir Keir Starmer and explain why it was sent, given it looks a bit bonkers:

The answer will surprise you. It’s less about oil and gas and more about who wins the next election, and which battlegrounds they will be fighting in to secure that win.

Mapping the battlegrounds

In 2019 The Labour Party saw its worst performance in 80 years. To reach a House of Commons majority in 2024, it will require an additional 132 seats. To achieve this, Labour would need a swing of at least 14 points in England, unless it could make significant gains in Scotland. 

An eight-point swing from the SNP to Labour could deliver a dozen gains in Glasgow and the central belt, while a double-digit swing could take Scottish gains to 20 seats or more. This represents the easiest road to election victory for the opposition.

According to the data, the election in 2024 is likely to be much closer than the polls and newspapers would have you believe.  

21 marginal seats have strong ties to oil and gas employment and 22 Labour seats have links to oil and gas.

This means that oil and gas is likely to be a central issue at the next election, but not necessarily for the reasons you think.

Like it or not, oil and gas is an economic driver that politicians can’t ignore

Politicians have three priorities: their constituency, their country and the supreme national interest. During an election campaign, their priority shifts heavily towards their constituency, to secure votes and keep their job.

Oil and gas jobs in the UK tend to be located in deprived constituencies, account for large proportions (between 8% and 10%) of those constituencies’ employment rates and are statistically classed as high paying and well above the mean averages.

The primary hubs for UK offshore oil and gas are located in Aberdeenshire, Orkney,  Northumberland, East Riding, Lancashire, Cumbria and Norfolk.

These areas represent some of the most deprived communities in the UK:

In Aberdeen, around 23,500 people, equivalent to 10.3% of the workforce, are employed directly in oil and gas industries. 

Median Average Salaries in Scotland are around £33,300pa whilst oil and gas jobs in Aberdeen see averages of £42,000pa.

Industry trade association Offshore Energies UK (OEUK) has revealed that the sector supported 213,600 oil and gas jobs in the UK 2022, an increase of over 6% from the previous year (200,800 in 2021). They reported that 30,300 of these people worked directly in the industry, with 99,700 indirect employees and 83,600 induced workers.

If we were to ‘Just Stop Oil’, over 20 years, Scotland would lose 12% of GDP.

Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas

The climate emergency is a fact. 

But nobody is going to vote to eliminate their own job.

However much awareness climate campaigners raise, behavioural science proves that voters will prioritise the most immediate issues and threats to them personally, so if their job is at risk, that will be their primary concern at the ballot box.

As of the 2019 election, almost all of the major oil and gas constituencies have Conservative MPs.

In the 2024 election, the Labour Party is targeting 9 seats in the North East with a majority of less than 9% and a total of 21 marginal high oil and gas employment seats. As well as 30 seats in Scotland that include business hubs with meaningful oil and gas employment levels like Edinburgh and Glasgow, as well as more traditional coastal constituencies.

In 2017, for many of these areas, non-voters could have changed the outcome for the constituency.

If any party takes a strong stance against new oil and gas and threatens people’s jobs without a viable alternative to ensure economic security, turnout in favour of opposing this stance will increase in 2024. 

Oil and gas employment will be a priority issue in these seats. 

Employees of these institutions, and their families, could be the difference between electoral victory or defeat for any political party taking a strong stance on climate.

Campaigning makes climate a wedge issue

Morally, the argument is often made that climate should be “above politics” because it affects us all.

While it is a cross-party issue that all politicians should be prioritising, there’s no escaping the fact that it doesn’t impact us all equally.

While Just Stop Oil and other protesters have been keen to highlight that there will be no jobs/sport/gardens etc on a dead planet, politicians need to balance environmental priorities with ensuring that climate solutions don’t come at the immediate cost of greater social deprivation in some of our poorest constituencies.

How can we ‘just’ stop oil without sacrificing a just transition?

Any politician or party promising to end new oil and gas, without a viable employment alternative on the table, can’t secure the electoral win to make those promises a reality.

And this is often where politicians, campaigners, and organisations fighting to solve the climate emergency, get stuck – especially in mainstream media interviews.

From the Highland Clearances, to fishing communities in Scotland to mining towns in Yorkshire, we’ve seen the impact it can have when industries are shut down without a replacement plan. The impact affects people’s lives, their families, their future prospects, local economies, and decades of political outcomes.

To avoid this happening again, any discussion around ending new oil and gas needs to come with a viable way of maintaining high paying jobs in those key constituencies.

Solutions such as carbon capture and storage investment at scale, which could transform the energy sector into a positive contributor to our environment, and ensure a just transition in the areas that currently rely on the oil and gas industry.

What about that letter?

All the major parties are preparing their 2024 campaigns, just as all campaigning organisations are preparing their policy asks now, and with recent data showing that the majority of the UK voting population hold an unfavourable opinion about Just Stop Oil, we’re at risk of unintentionally slamming the breaks on the climate conversation at this crucial moment for action.

I’m the problem, it’s me!

As we advised our client, If campaigners allow the parties to position themselves, or each other, in a binary manner over stopping new oil and gas licences, they may find they undermine the outcome we need for the climate.

If we don’t offer policy solutions to job losses and protecting livelihoods, slogans like “the political wing of Just Stop Oil” could form the basis for anti-climate narratives that lead to attack adverts leveraging this wedge issue in key oil and gas constituencies.

Which may be just enough to prohibit a commons majority for parties that support ending all new oil and gas licenses.

Our recommendations to any campaigning organisation focused on the fossil fuels issue are to present, and lobby for, viable solutions with strong economic arguments, that will win favour in the key 2024 battlegrounds, and to make these the key talking points and sound bites coming out of as many media opportunities as possible, to shape the narrative.

If we want to drive real change, we have to offer workable solutions. Otherwise the only thing our campaigning will stop, is us from achieving our goals.