Scotland was a brave choice as the venue for the launch of Keir Starmer’s new energy and climate policy. Back in March, Rishi Sunak was planning to hold his “energy day” in Aberdeen, the UK’s oil and gas capital, but after criticism he switched to the much safer Oxfordshire.

Starmer knows that Labour needs to win back lost seats in Scotland, so visiting the Scottish capital for an important speech was a canny move. More than that, though, taking the launch to Edinburgh showed a willingness to face head-on Labour’s energy dilemma: how to shift the UK economy to a low-carbon footing, as net zero demands, without destroying high-quality jobs in carbon-intensive industries.

Scotland exemplifies this: with a 200,000-strong North Sea oil workforce, and most of the UK’s installed base of windfarms, the Scottish economy and its workers are caught between the fossil fuel past and the renewable future.

Starmer told them they could choose both, with a carefully managed transition. “The moment for decisive action is now,” he said. “If we wait until North Sea oil and gas runs out, the opportunities this change can bring for Scotland and your community will pass us by, and that would be a historic mistake. An error, for the future of Scotland, as big as the Thatcher government closing the coalmines. My offer is this: a credible plan to manage the change, protect good jobs and create good jobs … to harness the wealth that is in our air, in our seas, in our skies, and use it to serve the interests of your community.”

The Labour leader has weathered a torrid few weeks on this issue, criticised for being too green and not green enough. He was forced to delay planned green investment of £28bn a year to the second half of a prospective Labour parliament, to the chagrin of economists and green campaigners.

But his net zero policies earned him the title of “the political wing of Just Stop Oil” from the energy secretary, Grant Shapps, and the ire of sections of the trade union movement, one of whose leaders called him “naive” for halting new North Sea licences.

The Tories redoubled their attacks on Monday. A party spokesperson said: “Labour have an energy surrender plan to abolish British oil and gas and an economic plan to saddle the British people with billions of debt and borrowing. Written and funded by the Just Stop Oil extremists, Labour’s energy policy appeases their eco-zealot paymasters and puts dictators like Putin in charge of setting the price of your energy bills. Only the Conservatives can be trusted to grow the economy while delivering secure British power.”

Starmer may brush this off as “Tory crap”, but his need to reassure workers and billpayers has led to some difficult decisions. The Rosebank oil and gas field, one of the biggest potential fields in the North Sea, is likely to receive final approval soon from the Conservative government. Labour will not try to stop production from the field, if elected to government, because rescinding licences could open the UK to legal wrangling and claims of billions in compensation.

Labour must also be uncomfortably conscious of how big oil and gas companies could create difficulties before the election, if they threaten to start cutting jobs now.

For all these reasons, reassurances over the future of the North Sea took precedence at the policy launch. As each of the key members of the Labour leader’s top team – Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor; Ed Miliband, the shadow climate and net zero secretary; Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labour leader – took to the stage, the message was clear: North Sea oil and gas would continue to be produced “for decades to come”.

At some point, that reassurance must be called into question. Conservative policy failures on net zero, as ministers vow to “squeeze every last drop from the North Sea” while also laying claim to climate leadership internationally, have led to accusations of hypocrisy. John Gummer, the chair of the committee on climate change and a former Conservative environment secretary, recently said: “[The government are] asking other people not to do what they’re doing.”

Environmental groups, keen to praise what they see as a good overall package of measures from Labour – including the eventual £28bn-a-year investment, a £500m a year jobs bonus for companies setting up low-carbon industries here, the creation of a national energy company called Great British Energy, and insulation for 19m homes – were reluctant to criticise.

But they added that an end date to fossil fuel production must also come soon. Ami McCarthy, a political campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said: “We already have more than enough oil in existing projects to ensure a safe transition to net zero, with no cliff edge. Only by setting out a clear timeline for phasing down fossil fuel extraction can we ensure workers and communities can have their say and truly benefit from the green jobs of the future.”


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