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Post-partisan environmentalism

Steven Hale

1st January, 2001

Who said these words: ‘The environmental movement is a growing force in civil society, searching for a home in mainstream politics. The party that succeeds will be the natural party of government’? It wasn’t George Monbiot, Tony Juniper or Jonathon Porritt. It was David Miliband, in December 2006.

He was right. Ecologist readers need no reminding that we are doing immense damage to our planet, and putting at risk our wellbeing and the lives of those who will suffer from our actions in the future. But the media, big business and the public are now waking up to it, and politicians are shifting with them.

Every other Sunday paper seems to come with a supplement on how to reduce your carbon footprint. Big businesses are seeking to persuade us of their green credentials. Britain’s bookshops are teeming with books by authors such as James Lovelock, Mark Lynas, and the brilliant Jared Diamond. But will any mainstream political party really gain the lasting trust and confidence of the environmental movement? And if not, what can we do about it?

There’s no doubt there are leading figures within each of the three main parties that get it. David Miliband is one of those in government who does, as are the new environment secretary Hilary Benn and his Conservative counterpart Peter Ainsworth. But there are some serious ideological barriers to each of our mainstream political parties really taking the environment to heart.

 Any party wishing to be taken seriously will need to use tax, spending, regulation and all the levers of government to re-orientate our economy and society to live within natural environmental limits, and much more aggressively than they are committed to doing currently. Our futures depend upon it.

Each party has its own particular ideological challenges, too. For Labour, it means standing up to the CBI. For the Conservatives, it means accepting that Europe must be strong and powerful if it is effectively to tackle global problems. For the Liberal Democrats, it means accepting limits on individual freedom that are a central part of liberal tradition.

To help persuade them to overcome these barriers, nine leading environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, WWF and the National Trust, joined forces earlier this year to establish The Green Standard. We set six tests against which we and the public could analyse the parties’ commitments. These covered domestic and international climate change, of course, but also important issues often neglected in public and political debate, such as planning and the natural environment.

The first of our collective assessments was published in September this year, just before the party conferences. It rated the parties for their commitments since the last election, and gave each a rating of green, amber or red for their policies in each of the six areas.

The main verdict from this assessment was that, despite the warm words, no party is yet putting forward proposals that properly reflect the breadth and the urgency of the environmental crisis. The Liberal Democrats received the highest rating, with green lights for three of the six tests. Labour and the Conservatives were some way behind: for its leadership on international climate change Labour got one green light; the Tories got none. To download the full report, see www.thegreenstandard.org.uk  

There has been a lot of water under the bridge since then, though, on both sides of the Commons. The Conservatives are now moving into their next phase, in which they will make policy commitments in response to their six independent policy commissions. The Quality of Life Commission, co-chaired by Ecologist director Zac Goldsmith, was greeted by a full scale onslaught from much of the right-wing media and there was talk of David Cameron distancing himself from its recommendations.

But a recent Ipsos-MORI poll showed that the public actually strongly welcomed the key elements of the report. Gordon Brown’s decision to put off an election gives the Conservative leadership the time needed to embrace the Quality of Life report. But will they? I fear the Tories will rest on their laurels, with less of the leadership they showed campaigning for a Climate Change Bill.

After all, where is the competition? The Green Standard report effectively assessed Tony Blair’s record, rather than that of the new man, but there is now alarming evidence that Gordon Brown is less committed than his predecessor. As Chancellor he gave little prominence to environmental issues – though he did place a greater emphasis on the environment in his later years at the Treasury and, as Prime Minister-designate, made a promising speech to Green Alliance in March this year.

Since he reached Number 10, however, two pledges on eco-towns have been the only tangible new policy with which he has been personally associated, and on issues from nuclear power to charging for household waste his government has taken the non-green choice. On the international stage there is none of the visible commitment shown by his predecessor. While Blair helped to secure European agreement to ambitious emissions reduction targets and to action on renewables and other issues, the Brown government has not yet demonstrated that it is ready to embrace those commitments and lead the global discussions on a new treaty.

That leaves the Liberal Democrats, a party always neglected by the Westminster media. When I spoke on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme following the launch of The Green Standard, they wanted to discuss Brown versus Cameron, not Menzies Campbell. But the Liberal Democrats do often set the standard for the other parties, so their next leader will be a critical player in determining how the two bigger parties approach the environment. Nick Clegg is the bookies’ favourite, but does not have the track record of commitment of his opponent, Chris Huhne. If he does win, his commitment to leading from the front on green issues will be critical.

The next general election is probably 18 months away. For the first time in British politics, all parties now know that the environment will be an important issue in that election. David Miliband has called it a threshold issue, one of those where any party that fails to adopt a credible approach will be unelectable. We need to make sure he is right.

The real issue is not what happens during general elections, however, but what the winners do afterwards. No election campaign can guarantee success on that front. We need to change the terms of political debate in the long term, to increase the cost of failure and raise the rewards for success. But how?

We won’t do it simply by playing fantasy cabinet, wishing for different politicians making different decisions, but through activism, by making sure politicians hear our voices on climate change and other issues. If you haven’t done so already, sign up to the Stop Climate Chaos campaign via www.icount.org.uk

We’ll also do it through our personal commitment to living differently, by joining the growing number of communities that are getting organised and going plastic bag-free, preparing for the end of oil (see www.transitiontowns.org) and by calculating and reducing your carbon footprint (see http:// actonco2.direct.gov.uk/index.html).

That’s seen as a cop-out by some. They point out, rightly, that it is governments not individuals that must make the big decisions that will make real difference. But our personal choices have important environmental impacts – and political ones. If we oppose a new runway at Heathrow, we should pledge not to fly from it. Politicians can and do pick up on social trends. We must create a movement of people living differently, something no politician can ignore.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2007

 

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