Green Alliance’s very own roving diarist of the party conference season, Alastair Harper, is back again this year with his first posting from the Liberal Democrats’ conference in Glasgow. It first appeared on BusinessGreen.
This is the year the parties position themselves for the electorate. What do they want people to vote for? The Liberal Democrats should have arrived in a drenched Glasgow ready to say it is for a strong environment. While the other parties spent their beach holidays reading books by or about their parliamentary colleagues, they were reading about the environment, with a survey showing they favoured the excellent Burning Question and Tony Juniper’s What has nature ever done for us?
It is good fortune that they’ve been doing their homework as the Green Standard 2013, an assessment published last week of the three main parties by the UK’s main environmental NGOs (in which I was involved), found that, despite winning some significant battles on climate change policy, they need a bolder programme for the environment, particularly the natural environment. And they need to address this if they still want to claim to be a ‘green party’.
A sure sign that an issue still matters to a party and that they want to act on it is if they are generating big ideas on that issue. So which big green ideas are the Lib Dems showcasing at their annual conference?
Clegg was apparently looking forward to announcing the plastic bag tax as his “number two” big idea during his speech. This is a small but helpful measure that will both reduce pollution and, because of where the money goes, also help local conservation projects. Though the rug was pulled out from under him when the story was leaked to The Daily Mail last Friday.
The other idea (so far) is to clarify funding of the negawatt trial already amended into the energy bill, with the announcement that it will receive £20 million.
The only thing that could really be called ‘big’ is less a new idea and more a new position. And it’s one that has riled some green groups. On Sunday afternoon the party voted through support for fracking and (unsubsidised) nuclear. Those concerned by this shift may take some comfort about its likely impact on policy. After all, last year the party voted through support for a decarbonisation target and their MPs were still whipped to vote against it.
Given the very firm anti-nuclear tradition of the party, this could be something of a Clause IV moment. It is intended to play into the broader narrative Clegg seems to have stitched together for his party. The tag line for the conference is “Strong economy. Fairer society” which basically means, “Tighter than Labour. Nicer than Tories.” It is an attempt to place the Lib Dems as the party of comparative political sanity, and new energy positions are meant to reflect that. Davey said in his speech that he rejects both zealots and vested interests in the fracking debate. They are the moderates. This isn’t the sexiest of advertising pitches: the moderate choice for a reasonable generation. Plus it’s questionable how reasonable it is to expect nuclear plants to be built without subsidy.
Either way, Ed Davey clearly wanted to stress that being green was the mainstream choice, and that it was being fought for against eccentric coalition partners only interested in wanton environmental destruction. He argued “we have to be in government. To fight for green advances. And fight off green retreats,” against “stone age” Conservatives.
His description of coalition government was less Dave and Nick in the rose garden, and more a mortared poppy field. This is trench war spread across many fronts: Alexander versus Osborne, Baker versus McLoughlin, Paterson (“of all people!” Davey despaired) against David Heath. From Davey’s speech, the yellow bird of reason was keeping the horde from the gate, ever tested but ever vigilant.
Ed Davey was following the macro script given to all the senior Lib Dems for their week in Glasgow, try and seem sane, Tories are mean, Labour are profligate. I imagine the memo had double underlined at the bottom: “NO ZANINESS! SENSIBLE!” But is all this relentless moderation a sign that they don’t have any big new ideas left?
Davey’s right that the public still understands the importance of climate action, despite the best efforts of a few. What he didn’t say was that the public used to identify the environment as a central part of what the Lib Dems were about, alongside education and civil liberties. Education was lost with top up fees. The lobbying bill will see them trade off civil liberty values for a quieter, more restricted, election period. They have not lost the environment yet but, as the Green Standard makes clear, it’s a risk they will have to face down.