Opinion: The green centre ground

Since the Coalition was formed we have lost the impetus with the green agenda. Around two fifths of Lib Dem voters from 2010 have switched to Labour or the Green Party. In Bristol, we sadly lost two ward seats to the Greens in this year’s local elections. By ‘greening’ our liberal, democratic and social reforms we are most likely to achieve our desired goal of a stronger economy in a fairer society.

That is why I welcome the Green Liberal Democrats Conference, taking place in Bristol on 15th June. The Conference can prove to environmentalists how we are trying as hard as is possible within the confines of the Coalition to implement green policies but that we are doing so against very solid resistance. We need environmentalists actively engaged in the party – but first we must convince them the centre-ground is theirs for the taking.

With the Tories shifting to the Right and Labour shifting to the Left, the centre should be fought not just on economic competency, but on how greening our economy is vital to achieving future growth.  An apt example of this is on Europe. Although we are fundamentally pro-European the Liberal Democrats won’t win the debate by simply arguing staying in Europe is better than the alternative. The fact is that even some of our own supporters do not know our line on Europe. The 2010 manifesto committed the party to supporting an in/out referendum the next time there is a fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU. The European Union Act 2011 already includes provision for a referendum when there is a fundamental change in the relationship between Britain and Europe. This was brought in by the Coalition Government and clearly sets out the circumstances when a referendum would be held.

We must therefore talk to voters, knock on doorsteps and explain to people why the EU and our commitment to the greenest government ever are complementary aims, namely on climate change. Europe is in a unique position to take bold, effective steps to combat climate change; for example on energy labelling, on aviation, and on emission targets. The UK must be part of this and we cannot hope to do so if a referendum eventually leads us to leave the EU. We must link the green agenda with the raison d’être of the Coalition – we must make the case that growth in our economy can be achieved through further green policies. Of course, I am not opposed to a referendum, but I want to demonstrate that part of winning this battle is to associate the centre-ground with green means, which can only be achieved through joint-European ends.

By framing the centre as synonymous with the green agenda, people will then associate the Liberal Democrats with a broader liberal agenda and acknowledge the successes we have made in the Coalition Government: for example on clean energy investment, green growth, a new Green Investment Bank, a Green Deal, new renewable energy incentives and low-carbon power.

For we are not just Liberal Democrats; we are green Liberal Democrats. It is no coincidence that at the time of the last Cabinet reshuffle, both DECC and DEFRA were guaranteed Liberal Democrat representation. Both the Conference in Bristol and the Green Book can lay the foundations for a new green centre-ground.  The Liberal Democrats have always been an outward looking internationalist and green party; as reactionary and conservative forces seek to challenge these twin aims, it is as crucial as it ever was that we proudly make the case for both.

* Alex Smethurst is a Parliamentary Assistant and candidate for Redland ward in Bristol in the local elections in May (written in a personal capacity).

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  • hmmmmmmmmmm.

  • Steve Griffiths 16th May '13 - 2:57pm

    All green initiatives and fresh ideas within the Lib Dems should be welcomed, but there is nothing particularly new in this. I recall as a young constituency Liberal Party secretary in the 1970s arranging debates on ‘zero growth’, which nowadays would be called ‘sustainability’, I suspect. We drew up and published a map of proposed cycle-ways within the city, one of the first in the country, and which largely became the current existing network. We had many environmental policies locally and pushed the national party to adopt them. We were green before the Green Party existed, before even they were called the ‘Ecology Party’. The sadness is that we allowed them to take the environmental mantel from us.

    Most of us that had been pushing the green agenda within the Liberal and Lib Dem parties tended to regard ourselves as being in a radical reforming party of the centre-left. As that now no longer seems to apply to the current ‘narrow-church’ party of the centre only, many of us pushing these issues have drifted away. The party today seems full of ‘neo-econs’ pushing what we would have regarded when I joined, as almost ‘Thatcherite’ economic policies, with little room for green issues. After all, David Cameron said that the coalition government would be “…the greenest government ever”, and look what happened…

    Why has it taken so long to get back to getting something like the ‘Green Book’ published having lost substantial numbers of green and left leaning Lib dems?

  • I can see the script in Connect now: “Hello, I’m a volunteer for the Liberal Democrats and I’ve come to explain to you why the EU and our commitment to be the greenest government ever are complementary aims.”

    I don’t mean to mock Alex. He’s right that we need to get better at promoting our values as part of our grassroots campaigning. But the doorstep is not the place to do this.

  • Ben Markowicz 16th May '13 - 5:30pm

    Time to end the disastrous democratic experiment.

  • Alex Meredith 17th May '13 - 7:53am

    Green policies will reduce energy bills and create jobs. Lib Dems are only party that can deliver. Simple message.

  • Steve Griffiths 17th May '13 - 8:42am

    Joe Otten

    …and by the same token it is entirely possible to be on the left or the right and take responsibility and face the challenge of global warming – or dare I say on the centre left?

  • Peter Chivall 17th May '13 - 10:08am

    Congratulations to Green Liberal Democrats supporter Alex Smethurst for a timely reminder that the LDs’ green credentials are possibly our best Unique Selling Point as a Party as well as being the right thing for both our Planet and the economy. Certainly, Green Liberal Democrat activists continue to receive a great deal of support and encouragement from the highest levels of the Party in Parliament and bodies such as Policy Committee and our fringe meetings at Conference are often packed out and addressed by prominent MPs and ministers.
    The drift of younger and more radical voters to Labour and the Green Party since 2010 is not necessarily due to lack of exposure of our green policies, however. Many Green Party supporters see it as the best match for the old Communist/Militant left and the Green aspect to them is almost accidental. Incidentally, in the County elections recently, Greens did not do well in places like Cambridge and Norwich where they had high hopes and seats that we lost, we lost to ‘Grey’ Labour on the austerity issue.
    Just to correct Alex slightly; until last year’s reshuffle we had no Ministers in DEFRA at all and our Minister of State now, David Heath, seems to have badgers and flooding preoccupying him, rather than wider issues such as the historic stranglehold on DEFRA policy and practice held by the agrochemical lobby.
    On Climate Change and Energy Policy, our excellent Secretary of State, Ed Davey, has (nearly) all the right policies,
    As has Vince with the Green Investment Bank and promoting Manufacturing Hubs for Renewable Energy. However, our real block on Green policies in practice is George Osborne, who does his worst to starve DECC and BIS of the seed-corn finance needed, while giving tax breaks to fracking and risky deep sea drilling for oil on the Atlantic margins. Even now, the excellent Green Deal which could reduce the energy usage of millions of homes, and provide thousands of construction-type jobs, is at risk of stalling for lack of the financial incentives and low cost finance needed to make it attractive to householders.
    Finally, can I add my voice to Alex’s plug for the GLD Conference on June 15th at UWE in Bristol. The Green LD Exec meets tomorrow to finalise the exciting-looking programme (and Ed Davey is confirmed as speaking BTW), the UWE is providing us with an excellent venue and Bristol is well worth a weekend (or longer) break with its Green Festival week. To register, contact [email protected].
    Written in my personal capacity although I am a member of GLD Executive.

  • Geoffrey Payne 17th May '13 - 1:21pm

    I plan to go to this and I look forward to it.
    In Hackney we have our own event on the Green Book 3 weeks later; http://www.hackneylibdems.org.uk/pageout.php?id=2

  • Geoffrey Payne 17th May '13 - 1:33pm

    I would add that the most important reason for persuing the green agenda is to ensure the world remains inhabitable for future generations, and for our own.
    One of the things the conference needs to tackle is how to turn around Green politics into a popular political movement. The biggest threat we face is from the political right. The Tory right and UKIP do not even believe that man made global warming is taking place and that anything needs to be done about it.
    In a time of austerity the general public shows little interest. In the popular imagination few are linking the extreme weather events to climate change, and are demanding the politicians do anything.
    It is not that we can expect Green politics to win us votes, we need to find ways to make it a vote winner. This is where we cannot afford to fail.

  • The general thrust of the article is accurate and to be commended. I voted for the Liberal Democrats at the last four general elections (in fact I voted for David Heath, the current Farm Minister at DEFRA ) and my primary reason was the party’s claim of being ‘green’ and caring about the environment. However, since the last general election, and especially since David Heath joined DEFRA, I have become totally disillusioned with the party and, if there were to be an election tomorrow, I would not vote Liberal Democrat.

    The parliamentary Liberal Democrat party seems to have totally forgotten the environment. Moreover, one of my main criticisms (which is actually reinforced by this article) is that the party seems to believe that ‘green’ is synonymous with climate change and renewable energy. Now these are extremely important, indeed vital, issues (on which I have campaigned for over 30 years), however they are just part of the overall ‘green’ agenda. It is rare to hear any mention of biodiversity, ecosystem ‘services’, wildlife conservation, habitat and landscape protection, general pollution, animal welfare, and so on. When did Nick Clegg last address any of these issues? How much coverage do these issues receive in ‘The Green Book’?

    On every ‘green’ issue (other than climate change) policies have significantly worsened under this Coalition government, and the Liberal Democrats have done nothing to stop the malaise, indeed on some issues they have actively supported anti-green policies. For example, the weakening of planning laws and the irresponsible National Planning Policy Framework, the plans to sell off publicly owned forests (only stopped by public pressure and originally supported by the Lib Dems), the failure to support a precautionary ban of neonicotinoid pesticides that are harmful to bees, supporting the misguided badger cull (despite the opposition of virtually all independent scientists and wildlife experts), supporting the route of HS2 which will damage SSSIs, ancient woodlands and areas of outstanding natural beauty (yes it may shift freight off roads, but this could be achieved at lower speeds allowing a less environmentally damaging route), a pathetic implementation of marine conservation zones, failure to push through the promised levy on plastic bags in supermarkets, and so on. Further, I repeatedly hear Lib Dem MPs calling for ever more infrastructure and housing development, including road building, without a mention of the environmental consequences. (And, of course, even mentioning ‘overpopulation’ is taboo!)

    All of this ‘green’ failure is epitomised by my own MP, David Heath, who has become a stooge for the appalling Owen Paterson at DEFRA, by far the worst and most ignorant Secretary of State for the Environment this country has had since Nicholas Ridley. On every issue, including bees/neonicotinoids and the badger cull, Heath just says “I agree with Owen”! It has only been after considerable public pressure and much prevarication that we are now making some actual progress on banning wild animals in circuses. He does nothing proactively to help the environment or wildlife, such as protecting birds of prey from persecution, despite continued lobbying from conservation groups. I now regard my support for David Heath at the last election as a wasted vote, as do my family and friends.

    This is all a very far cry from “the greenest government ever”. In truth, as species go extinct, wildlife biomass declines and ever more countryside vanishes under concrete, this has become one of the least green governments ever.

  • Eddie Sammon 17th May '13 - 7:28pm

    I have just commented on the food versus fuel thread but I have a question to ask that is more suitable for this one:

    Is it possible to produce renewable energy as cheaply as fossil fuel without government subsidy, and if not, might this become reality in the reasonably near future?

    I get worried about talk of the hopes of green jobs because last time I checked the industry was pretty much totally dependent upon the government and if this ever changed investors would have been right onto it without the need for political pressure groups.

    I think government should subsidise it because the environment is too important, but I fear the economic arguments are overstated?

  • Simon – By the time the apocalyptic events you mention start happening (they already are on a small-ish scale), it’ll be too late, and the majority of people will support some appalling military action. How do we bring people to their senses before all that happens??

  • Eddie Sammon 17th May '13 - 9:42pm

    Simon, thanks for your articles. However I disagree with carbon taxes and price controls. In my opinion the harsh reality is that renewable energy production should be run by the government and funded by increases in common taxes.

  • Eddie Sammon 17th May '13 - 11:17pm

    So do I, but if you just increase the price of energy then you’ll starve people around the world. I think the safest way to do it would be to increase taxes across the board. You could possibly increase taxes on the wealthiest only, but I don’t think this is a sustainable approach for all new government spending commitments.

    I don’t mean to be argumentative, I’m just trying to help the situation.

  • Eddie Sammon 17th May '13 - 11:36pm

    Carbon taxes are nobally aimed at hitting the producers so I know the proposal isn’t barking mad. However it seems they just increase their prices to pay for them.

    The same argument, however, can be said of any tax. My argument for increasing taxes across the board could just push up prices across the board.

    Ultimately I prefer my approach because of its simplicity, but I respect opposing views. It would be interesting to see what research is available on the relationship between tax increases and inflation.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th May '13 - 1:03pm

    With the Tories shifting to the Right and Labour shifting to the Left, the centre should be fought not just on economic competency, but on how greening our economy is vital to achieving future growth.

    Oh, PUH-lease, there is no sign whatsoever of labour “shifting to the left” apart from in the fervid imagination of a few political right-wingers. And, yes, I do include in that the person you are quoting.

    Our society is growing more unequal all the time. In the fact of that, we are living in a society where right-wing values dominate. Labour’s timid response to this is NOT “shifting to the left”. It is sticking somewhere in the centre.

    If you REALLY want to “green society”, you need to change the economic assumptions on which it currently runs. Those are right-wing ones. You will not do it while trying to squeeze between Labour in the centre and Tories on the right. Show your convictions, Alex, say what you WANT is for our party to be one of the left. Stand up to the political right who are trying to smother debate by attempting to label any slight shift from what they have established as orthodoxy as a “shift to the left”.

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