How the Lib Dems can be distinctive on the environment

It’s important to remind people that we were Britain’s original Green Party. We were into environmentalism in the 1920s when the Liberal Party’s Yellow Book proposed setting up national parks. The party’s manifesto at the February 1974 general election was one of the greenest ever, and the Liberals had policies in the 1979 manifesto decrying the measurement of economic growth in terms of GDP.

It’s also important to remember that being the first doesn’t mean we remain the authority on political representation of environmentalism. Far from it. In a YouGov opinion poll five months ago that asked “Which political party do you think would be best to handle the environment and climate change?”, the Lib Dems came fourth. The Greens were top with 25%, Labour second with 15%, the Conservatives third on 12%, and we polled just 4% (others 2%, don’t know 26%, none 17%). Yet the party’s commitment to the environment is integral to Liberalism – Liberals regard the environment as part of the common good, so we condemn any entity that harmfully exploits the natural environment.

The problem, therefore, is the messaging: how do we Lib Dems get voters to see that we are a fundamentally green party? This formed the basis of the discussion on the second Green Book podcast, published by the people behind The Green Book that appeared in 2013. Hosted by the next MP for Eastbourne – sorry, got ahead of myself there – by the Lib Dem PPC for Eastbourne Josh Babarinde, it featured discussion among the veteran environmental activist Tom Burke (now of the E3G think tank), James Murray, the founding editor of Business Green, and Chris Willmore, a former sustainability professor who’s now the Lib Dem cabinet member for planning and regeneration at South Gloucestershire council.

You can watch the episode here:

The discussion is well worth a listen, because there were different approaches to the central issue of how to make the Lib Dems distinctive on green issues. It covered several aspects of the environmental debate, including the risk of voter backlash, and that old chestnut of how you find the balance between, on the one hand, letting the state set the price signals and then leaving it to individuals and businesses to be the change, and, on the other, allowing the state a bigger role in order to green our way of life via a ‘just transition’.

Two things in particular shone through.

Firstly, the Lib Dems need to tell more positive stories from environment-land. The environment has become too “doom and gloom”, yet there are an awful lot of good news stories of people doing positive and meaningful things to reduce their carbon footprint and other environmentally beneficial things, and if we don’t shout about them, the negativity surrounding environmental action put about by the right-wing press will win the day. “Show, not tell,” as Willmore and Burke both agreed, and Burke talked about the party encouraging a “Missing Voices” feature in Lib Dem literature, in which local tales of admirable environmental action should be highlighted.

Secondly, the party needs to make a clearer link between doing the right thing environmentally and reducing the cost of living and enhancing quality of life. Many aspects of environmental action are left to the affluent middle classes, with the right choices proving too expensive or too complex for people on lower incomes to make. Lib Dem environment policy should therefore be focused on making it easy for every socioeconomic group to do its bit, like making insulation easier to have installed, or making the purchase of a bus season ticket or bicycle more spreadable. And it starts with the language we use – if we talk about warm homes, lower costs, clean energy, rewarding jobs, and such like, we make the environment more meaningful than sticking to the technocratic language that populates environmental debate.

With Rishi Sunak judging that there is political capital to be made from doing the wrong thing – like issuing new extraction licences for North Sea oil when climate scientists are saying it must stay in the ground – differentiating Lib Dem policy from the Conservatives will be easy. Differentiating it from Labour will be much harder, but the priority is to get voters to see the Lib Dems as an inherently environmental party, so we don’t lose the votes of those who want to show they care about the world today’s youngsters will inherit. At the moment that is not the case.

The party’s task is therefore to find an environment policy that cuts through, rather than one that is distinctive from Labour’s. Yet the two are effectively the same thing, as only something different will cut through. With the environmental movement having relatively little to show for 40 years of campaigning in Britain, and with it having got sucked in to being painted as a negative movement (because it’s always seen criticising decisions by government and big business), there’s a massive opening for the Lib Dems to develop a positive approach to fighting climate change and protecting our natural heritage. If we can get it right, it could be the most exciting development in the environmental arena since the bread-slicing knife.

Meanwhile stand by for the third in the Green Book pod series, on Britain’s relations with Europe, coming later this month.



* Chris Bowers is a two-term district councillor and four-time parliamentary candidate. He writes on cross-party cooperation and in 2021 was the lead author of the New Liberal Manifesto.

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  • Robert C Heale 6th Dec '23 - 5:06pm

    We do have positive environmentalist messages. Most Liberal Democrat Councillor Groups have a good record on recycling (though I realise it is more of a challenge in some urban areas); we have supported park and ride schemes plus active travel based on public transport. We have also gone beyond that in some Councils. The Liberals and Liberal Democrats nationally have had strong environmentalist policies for decades, as stated above.
    In contrast, the so-called “Green” party have a poor recycling record in Brighton and Hove; consistently opposed park and ride schemes for decades, which has made the traffic problems, congestion and probably pollution worse. They (the Greens) have an M.P. who relies on paid staff (both Party and Parliamentary) for her public relations and publicity. She also is described in an academic study of parliamentary voting as the most “extreme left-wing” of all M.P.’s. The same M. P. was taken to the Parliamentary Standards Officer for breaches of the Parliamentary code, including the selling of passes to Parliament (which should be free to Constituents). See Wiki for some of the details of the Green M.P. (if they haven’t been further “edited” by the Greens!!
    We need to promote the background and give examples of how the Liberals/Liberal Democrats have been environmentalist for decades, long before the Ecology/Green Party (formerly led by David Icke!) even existed!!

  • To say that the environmental movement has little to show for 40 years of campaigning is being far too negative. Recycling now is an accepted part of everyday life; high quality animal welfare standards are the norm (and the massive growth of veganism – I’m one – transcends that as an issue); public opinion has killed fracking as a possibility; hunting otters and foxes is no longer acceptable; and the list could be extended much further. In my own industry, printing, carcinogenic chemicals were routinely used 40 years ago; paper mills poured toxic effluent into watercourses; paper made from clear-cut forests in the far east was used in this country: none of this happens now. Campaigning works, but as Chris says, we need to do much more to be seen by the voters as being in the vanguard of environmental activism.

  • nigel hunter 6th Dec '23 - 11:56pm

    Pointing out the local successes of the party should be pushed more NATIONALLY to show how the environment can be helped by the schemes put into place by our councillors.We will get NOWHERE if we do not exclaim our successes.
    As THE GREENS (AND INDEPENDANTS) seem to be learning how to campaign (learning from us)we should not be complacent thinking everything will fall into our lap.

  • Nick Hopkinson 7th Dec '23 - 8:29pm

    An important article which members should take seriously.

  • An interesting listen. It started off a bit generic, but got going in the second half and I could have listened to more.

    One of the messages that came through was that we have plenty of good policies, but to communicate that we need to “show, not tell”. But as a party we rarely seem to show or tell. Based on the imprecise sample of leading LibDems I follow on social media, you would think the environment was a fringe, very niche issue. Looking at the LDVTeam tweets, I only spotted a couple linked to the environment over the last month. One was for this article, the other a retweet of Sarah Dyke proposing better public transport in rural areas so people can get to work.

    The climate and nature breakdowns are the most pressing issue of our age. If we want the public to believe we are serious on the environment we need to act like we believe it.

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