Tom Burke’s Political Commentary: Environment profile low at party conferences

Published in ENDS Report (Issue 417, p54), in October 2009.

Conference speeches by party leaders take on a special significance just before a general election. Their purpose is no longer simply to rally the faithful but to reach over the heads of party members and speak directly to the electorate.

Their job is to define the battleground for the coming election. They identify the big themes, core values and key priorities. For all their protestations to the contrary, politicians know full well that elections are not about policies. Electoral outcomes are determined by more visceral considerations.

People vote for the party they think is on their side. They have always done so. But in the past these lines were more deeply etched than they are in today’s congested centre. Traditional voting habits have largely dissolved. This means that the parties, and in our age of celebrity, the party leaders, must work all the harder to be distinctive.

Prior to the election itself, there is no better stage than the party conference to begin this effort. Nothing before the campaign begins will attract so much attention from media or voters. Hence the focus on the leader’s speech. Nothing about it is left to chance. It is planned down to the finest detail. Every word is weighed. Every line revised and then revised again. There is sweat on every comma.

Thus this speech, more than anything else, tells you what the leader really thinks is important. What then are we to make of the place of the environment in contemporary British politics?

Environmental pressures are everywhere becoming more acute. Gross air and water pollution may be much less than it was in Britain but the pollution, along with the factories and the jobs, has been off-shored to Asia. Nature is sending alarm after alarm about biodiversity loss with unexplained global collapses in populations of bees, bats and frogs. Conflicts over runways, roads, houses, ports, wind farms and power stations are deepening.

And then there is climate change. We are repeatedly, and rightly, told that this is the defining issue of the century. The calls for urgency from scientists now verge on the panicked. It is becoming clear that what is at stake is the prosperity and security of everyone in Britain under 40.

Our way of life will be transformed over the next three decades, either because climate policy succeeds, or, in a different way, if it fails. The landscape of risk and opportunity for business will be transformed in both cases. But, such is the nature of the climate problem, the crucial choices of whether it is policy or events which drive that transformation will be made in the next decade.

The barriers to successfully dealing with this onrushing avalanche of environmental problems are neither economic nor technological. We already know what we need to know to address the most urgent environmental problems. In the real world, rather than that of the inadequate models so beloved by economists, solving these problems will improve, not damage, the economy.

The real barrier is political will. Or rather, the absence of it. Making the changes that are necessary for the environment will not wreck the economy, but it will change the pattern of winners and losers. This means politicians must take on, and defeat, deeply entrenched economic interests.

In a democracy this can only be successful if the public understands what needs to be done and why. That depends on which way the spiral of attention is turning. The public pays attention to the issues politicians talk about and ignores those politics ignores. And, as the spiral turns, politicians talk about the issues the public is paying attention to and ignore those the public ignores.

Much can therefore be gleaned about where the environment really stands in British politics simply by looking at the amount of attention it got in the leaders’ party conference speeches. The prime minister’s speech ran to 6,453 words of which 172 (2.7%) referred to the environment. David Cameron’s speech contained 143 words out of 6,386 (2.3%) that addressed the environment. Nick Clegg managed 140 words out of 4,292 (3%) although that is probably a bit generous as he wove his environmental references in with other themes.

This is not nearly enough to explain the full scale and nature of the changes – and choices – facing the British public as the environmental pressures grow over the next decade. This sets off another vicious spiral in which politicians resist asking the public to make difficult choices because they fear they will not be understood and the public resists those choices because they do not understand them.

Politics, we are constantly reminded, is the art of the possible. But political leadership is the art of expanding the realm of the possible. There is little evidence from their conference speeches that any of our mainstream political parties is much interested in political leadership.

The obligatory bows and genuflections to political correctness are there in plenty, of course. But there is nothing to suggest that incessant mantra of ‘responsible new change’ – there is one word from each of the party leaders’ speeches in this portmanteau – actually amounts to anything remotely real in relation to the scale of the problems.

To some in the business community this might appear reassuring. There seems little prospect of Britain entering a new period of environmental activism. Big government is to be abolished. Regulations are to be streamlined – again. Growth will be king and all those pesky planning restrictions will no longer be permitted to get in its way. Unless some very strange configuration of the stars occurs and the Lib-Dems form a government, we will remain semidetached from Europe and its hyperactive environmentalism.

This will be a false comfort. The problems are not going away. If they are not faced progressively now, they will have to be dealt with abruptly later at much higher cost and with much greater disruption.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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