Last week there should have been a great victory for the British turbine industry. Auctions were held for offshore wind power, asking companies to bid for the right to supply electricity at £44 per megawatt hour – a third of the price offered eight years ago. The government and the renewables lobby hoped that a successful auction would show that wind power could compete with fossil fuels. Instead, developers worried that they couldn’t turn a profit on the amount they would be paid for energy. There wasn’t a single bid.
‘It was very embarrassing,’ says Gary Smith, leader of the GMB union. ‘Whitehall told us wind was getting cheaper and cheaper. Now there will be no bids for the next round of licences because the wind industry can’t afford to put up the projects.’ The auction flop was humiliating not only for the government but also for Sir Keir Starmer, who has said he wants a net-zero carbon electricity system by 2030, along with no more licences for North Sea oil- and gas-drilling.
Starmer’s 2030 deadline is ‘impossible’, says Smith. ‘I don’t even worry about it. It can-not be done.’ No amount of enthusiasm can overcome these particular hurdles. ‘The National Grid can’t get [undersea] cables. There are four suppliers of cables in the globe, they’re all booked out to 2030.’
GMB is one of the biggest union donors to the Labour party, but when it comes to oil, Smith’s position is closer to the Tories. ‘There will be more drilling in the North Sea,’ he says. ‘What are we going to do? Put up the infrastructure and have nothing to plug in? It’ll look great, but we’ll be watching it in the dark.’
It’s a point you’re unlikely to hear made in the House of Commons. ‘The renewables lobby is very wealthy and powerful,’ says Smith. ‘I think people on the left, for good intentions, have got hoodwinked into a lot of this.’
Smith has been a GMB member for his entire working life. He joined at 16 when he was a gas service engineer in Edinburgh. Since he became general secretary two years ago, he has made it his priority to point out the problems with Westminster’s net-zero targets. He believes the blind rush for a green revolution is harming those who can least afford it: ‘We’ve cut carbon emissions bydecimating working-class communities.’
He describes the green levies that have added £170 a year to every household bill as a modern-day poll tax, ‘disproportionately paid for by the poorest’. ‘The poor pay the same as everybody else. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a leaky, freezing council house. You’re paying basically the same for renewables.’
These kinds of impositions might be tolerated, he says, if there were any sign of the ‘green jobs’ promised by every government since Tony Blair. ‘Communities up and down the east coast can see wind farms,’ says Smith. ‘But they can’t point to the jobs.’ Much of the green work seems to be either London-based lobbying, or clearing away the animal casualties of wind-farm blades: ‘It’s usually a man in a rowing boat, sweeping up the dead birds.’
What’s gone wrong with the green jobs initiative? Smith’s answer is simple – everything is built elsewhere, then imported to the UK. ‘Our energy infrastructure is now built in China, it’s built in Indonesia, it’s built in the Middle East, and, ironically, in sovereign oil and gas wealth-fund backyards.’ It often feels like a betrayal of what’s been promised. ‘We’ve got a wind farm going up ten miles off Fife – it’s been built in Indonesia. We took taxpayers’ money to go to court to overturn a ban on the wind farm, to get [planning] consent… As soon as it’s consented, the project’s sold and the work we’re promised is shipped off to Indonesia.’
Smith castigates the Conservatives for an ‘ideological bent’ towards the kinds of economic systems that lead to the importing of goods and outsourcing of jobs. But he insists the GMB is not a protectionist organisation. ‘I know the history of our union,’ he says. ‘When we introduce protectionism, [there’s an] impact that has on working people and unions – it’s not what we’re about. What we want to see is a fairer trading relationship. And let’s stop talking about this as if market economics is somehow driving it. It’s not. We’ve had a communist state skewing the global economy.’
This brings Smith to his greatest frustration: China and the Tories’ approach to it. ‘The fact that a lot of [imports are] coming from an increasingly authoritarian, non-market economy in China seems to have escaped the economic debate,’ he says. ‘We are hugely dependent on food imports and on energy imports. And we want to be a trading nation, but we’ve become increasingly dependent on places like China because we can’t [secure] our energy future.’