Alastair Harper is Green Alliance’s senior policy adviser on Political Leadership and, while the season is with us, roving party conference diarist.
Here is his first report from the Liberal Democrat’s conference in Brighton. This post was first published on Business Green.
The heavens opened on Brighton’s seafront shortly after the arrival of Nick Clegg on Saturday, and we were told it wouldn’t relent until the politicos have all departed at the end of the week. Clearly the corporates that thought to invest in complimentary umbrellas are very happy – the rest of us, less so. Still, the (sustainable) fish and chips smell good, the people seem relatively cheerful and the conference goes on unabated.
One measure of a good seaside town is not how it does in the sunshine, but what it offers in a downpour. The same is true of a political party. We’re now a world away from former perceptions of the Lib Dems as the nation’s Victorian novel – righteous and well intentioned, if a little hard going. Alas, the Rose Garden days have also been washed away with the flood. The recent reshuffle moved a lot of the more liberal Conservatives off the front benches, and replaced them with some rather more hardline types. This made apparent what had been suspected for a while – it was getting harder for the Conservatives to “agree with Nick.” At best, they might now agree to disagree.
So that’s the downbeat context in which the party faithful gathered in Brighton. Except things don’t seem so downbeat. The party seems quite excited to be able to stretch out and be themselves again. They seem, in a pacifist, Lib sort of way, ready for battle with their coalition partners.
The excuse for war, the Brave Little Belgium that will get them into the trenches, is the environment. George Osborne’s acting as a perceived barrier to green growth has galvanised the party. Conference motions on the environment filled the schedule and have been passed on aviation, the green investment bank and (most politically important) a decarb figure in the Energy Bill. As each motion passed, the rain lessened and, beating predictions, the sun started to shine.
We’ve heard strong words from Alexander, Cable, and Duncan Hames (new PPS to Clegg, and therefore something of a spokesperson for the leader). It’s a striking difference to last year in Birmingham. There we had fiery words from Chris Huhne (par for the course), but little else beyond the barren consensus that green stuff was terribly important… and now back to the deficit.
This year is different. The major political issue is green. Backed by Miliband, who came out in support on Saturday, the fight for a decarb figure is now framed as a fight between past and future. I don’t believe Labour will want to give up their climate credentials to the Lib Dems – they remain fiercely proud to have been the government to introduce the Climate Change Act. Nor will the Conservatives want to turn their back on a huge growth area for the UK economy. I’m hopeful that this conference season will see the rebirth of the environment and the green economy as a political issue worth fighting for.