Thursday, May 18, 2006


The Green Vote and British Politics

Following on from yesterday’s post largely about the impact of the Green Party on local elections, today I’m looking at how the Liberal Democrats might take them on nationally, along with the newly minted green pretensions of Mr Cameron (blimey, that’s good timing, I thought, as news broke this morning of our latest climate change policy launch). The Labour Party’s record on green policies and, it seems, inclination to attract greener voters is so insubstantial and irregular – I might say chameleonic, if that didn’t suggest some purpose as opposed to occasional spasms of interest – that they’re pretty irrelevant.

Vote Blue, Get…?

With Labour’s only significant foray into environmental politics at the moment being Mr Blair’s pre-emptive nuclear strike, it’s a useful question to ask what it’s intended to pre-empt. Is it the government’s own yet-to-report energy review, to which the Prime Minister is listening with his usual patience and consideration? Is it to pre-empt claims that he’s no longer in charge? Or is it, as Peter Black suggested yesterday, designed to make life difficult for Mr Cameron’s green credentials: does he agree with the Prime Minister (in which case it’s just ‘me too’, and loses much green support), or oppose nuclear power (splitting his party and being accused by Mr Blair of turning the lights out, particularly when he’s opposed wind turbines)? Peter also looks at the problems Mr Blair might be causing for Labour’s Welsh Assembly Government; of course he wants them to rule out Prosiect Y Blaidd Drwg, but Rhodri’s looking a bit tubby these days, isn’t he?

Though Mr Cameron made himself look a bit silly by having his green bike followed round by its own car, or by using huskies only after he’d laid a long trail of air pollutants, he did his party a lot of good with his continuing series of green pronouncements and photo-opportunities, after which groundwork I can imagine many people nodding when it was finally turned into a political slogan. I said on Richard Allan’s blog that ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’ was the most persuasive Tory Broadcast I’ve seen for about fifteen years (and probably the only positive one in that time, too). The approach of ‘person on the street who doesn’t look like a Tory raises an issue’ followed by ‘and here’s something lovely that a Tory council is doing on that very issue’ worked - if you took away the little children’s cartoons, it could have been any Lib Dem council elections broadcast from the last ten years - but did a better job of linking their party to the environment than we’ve managed, astonishingly. James Graham compares it favourably to what he calls our “dreadful “litany” of “safer, greener, fairer”… his slogan was intended to convey the message that the Tories had changed but also that the Tories had a good record in local government with regard to the environment. Our slogan was just a jumble of things we thought people thought were important… Cameron managed to develop a strong national message that complimented both the narrative he is developing and local campaigns; we should have done the same.”

This campaign had one, essential, underlying message: ‘come back, middle class voters – we are no longer evil’. The happy byproducts are the implication, both in the choice of issue and in emphasising what a good job they do locally rather than just how cheap they might be, that the Lib Dems are unnecessary (and, to further erode our vote, even a hint that voting Green is OK). The effect was striking. Opinion polls now show the Conservatives in a strong second place just behind us on which party is most trusted on the environment.

So what can we do about it? Well, Labour’s instinct is to go negative and target the man. Yes, Mr Cameron not being as green as he poses is amusing, but I find attacking personalities a huge turn-off. Besides, when the Conservatives are one of the parties we’re hoping to co-operate with as well as compete with to find the best green policies (yes, even Iain Paisley is more progressive than Labour on this. Wince), name-calling is surely as unproductive as it is unattractive. The line of attack that may help us both to attract more environmentally-minded voters and to force the Tories to take a more genuinely green position – a win-win scenario – is simply to take them to task for having no policies, and positively promote ours. As Millennium and then Ming put it, where’s the beef?

What’s wrong with the Green Party?

I’ve made a case from electoral concerns, but the environment is one of the main things that brought me into the Lib Dems in the first place, and I believe a Lib Dem government would do a better job on it than any other party, Greens included. That makes the Greens’ relative success under one of our other favourite things, proportional representation, all the more irritating. It’s ironic that after so many years of advocating PR, our focussed, small-scale electoral techniques are so ill-suited to it. List systems in particular favour impulse votes based on a couple of simple words rather than any actual work, and to many people ‘Green’ (or ‘UK Independence’) just pushes their button.

As I said yesterday, the Greens are chasing very much our sort of voter, which helps explain why we always tank in Euro-elections. The height of this was of course in 1989, the first country-wide elections I helped in after joining the party, where, um, purely as a scientific experiment the Lib Dems decided to write themselves off so badly that we could see what might happen if we weren’t there at all. We nearly succeeded, coming fourth with just 4%, which is why I didn’t weep copious tears at the alleged disaster of ‘only’ getting 27% and pushing the government into third place a fortnight ago. In our virtual absence in 1989, the Greens simply filled the vacuum, zooming from nowhere to 15% and carving a niche they still hold in the very Southern areas where we could now do with a little extra boost to keep pace against the Tories. It’s not rocket science to see those Toryish conservationists as well as ex-Labour Green voters as an opportunity. Mr Cameron certainly does.

Rather than wailing “It’s not fair!” when we work hard and the Greens get votes out of nowhere without deserving it, we of all people should recognise that no party has any votes by right. Part of the hostility that the Greens direct towards us in particular is down to this: both of us genuinely believe we’re the only ones who really mean it on the environment; and both of us believe we were here first. Unfortunately, the theological / historical questions of exactly what the Liberal Party and the Ecology Party said and when aren’t going to sway a lot of voters, or even me. While we shouldn’t be ashamed to say we’re the best, bar none, for those who’d still put the Greens first, there are tactical cases, practical cases and sheer familiarity to try.

The main options in attempting to swing people away from the Greens are, it seems to me, to attack them directly over our differences, to say ‘they’re not altogether bad, but they can’t win and we’ll actually get things done’, or to treat them as if they don’t exist and simply proclaim how good we are. That Liberal Democrats tend to like it when Labour and the Tories take the former strategy and feel bruised when they try the other two should tell you which is more effective! I’d go for the third option by preference, with the second if pressed and the first only when going head-to-head - it’s useful to have the ammunition if, for example, you’re facing a Green candidate in a debate. On a national level I think attacking the Greens directly would do more harm than good: aside from my general distaste for overly negative campaigns, I suspect another thing that the Greens and Lib Dems have in common is that we’re both seen as ‘nice’, and the ‘nice’ party that attacks the other ‘nice’ party isn’t going to be seen as the nicer one. The other issue to consider is that it makes them seem bigger than they are and talks them up – why publicise them? You might well ask, looking at Lib Dem blogs like this one, but bear with me.

Although I wouldn’t advocate making the points into a national campaign, it’s useful to have reasons why Liberal Democrats would actually be better for the environment than the Greens so as not to let them gain the moral high ground by default, and several Liberal Democrats have indeed set out why the Greens’ plans would be less successful than ours. For example, give people power to make their own small-scale decisions instead of banning everything in sight with preaching and overregulation. Make the market do the job instead of ripping it up and starting again. And make the EU do a better job instead of ripping that up and starting again in bizarre Euroscepticism that makes Tory proposals seems realistic and embarrasses even the Greens’ European partners (few of whom are against the euro, unlike our home-grown lot who think you can save the world in one country).

The excellent David Howarth MP wrote an article on the subject for the Green Liberal Democrat magazine Challenge, focusing on George Monbiot (who seems knee-jerk anti-Lib Dem more on personal than political grounds), but along the way looking at the many views and policies the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party have in common – including “commitments to environmentally-friendly forms of transport, taxing pollution and carbon use, encouraging energy efficiency and renewable forms of energy production, the empowerment of local government, proportional representation and opposition to the war in Iraq,” then considering fault lines. The Green Party claim not to believe we mean the policies we espouse and have long taken more flak for than they ever do; the Liberal Democrats tend to doubt the Greens’ commitment to civil liberties and political freedom, “a party for which ends matter far more than means”. But, says David, the two biggest issues we can agree that divide us are trade and Europe (on both of which he points out Mr Monbiot has changed his mind and swung from fundamentalist opposition to be in favour). “The idea of the European Union, founded on the fundamentally Liberal idea that free trade increases the degree to which we depend on people in other countries and thus promotes peace, appals them. The euro, the main point of which is to facilitate trade, is, for Greens, a bad idea not because it might not work, but because it plainly does work.” Like John Stuart Mill, I’ve never believed in free trade as an article of faith, but as a practical means of delivery, intervening to make it work more fairly and cleanly works a lot better than the state trying to build a completely new system of planning by diktat.

You’ll have noticed Joe Otten putting the boot in in an even more forceful manner as he attacks the Greens’ socialist planning and hostility to trade or science, and calls for us “to point out the moral shortcomings of the Green position.” Richard Huzzey, similarly, thinks their “authoritarian, apocalyptic response” will be unattractive if exposed, along with the “vast hinterland of extreme and unsettling policy, which goes unnoticed, I'm sure by most of their voters.” You’ll recall that I recoil slightly from attacking ‘moral shortcomings’ as a strategy, and Richard Huzzey also recognises this can sound “overly-partisan and bitchy”. In defence of both of them, though, in those very few areas like Sheffield and – particularly – Oxford, where there are Green Party councillors who have proven they can win and who do some work rather than just appearing as spoiler candidates, the approach must be different, as talking them up matters less when they’re already seen as credible.

My general view, though, is that a lot of people – even if they don’t know many Green Party policies – do get a sense that they may indeed be scary extremists who’d do all sorts of damage if they got in, but, ‘So what? They’re not going to win, so we can vote for them and salve our consciences’. It’s the same sort of effect observed in Tony Benn’s uncanny popularity with blue-rinse Tory ladies in the shires now that he’s retired and just plays old tunes instead of threatening to eat their children. So if scaring people away from the Green Party won’t work, how about something positive instead?

The Liberal Democrats have a better answer

We really can’t say that enough. We’re not just the best of ‘the main parties’ – we’re the green party that would actually make things work, though as no party’s ever going to be perfect, we have to keeping looking out for improvements. My suggestions on Tuesday were a contribution to that debate, and if people in other parties or none come up with better ideas, we should always be prepared to look at them, test them and nick them. It’s also a national message that the Liberal Democrats have indeed been hammering away at consistently and hard. Both Ming and Charles before them made the environment the topic of their first ‘themed’ speeches as Leader, and I can remember the two big issues that Mr Paxman hammered Paddy on as far back as the 1992 election – eco-taxes and gay rights. We’ve got better since on both. With green issues running right through our Manifestos, I know how many precious morning press conferences were devoted to the environment during each of the last two General Election campaigns. The trouble was, as with so much of the Lib Dems’ national message, that journalists simply aren’t interested in reporting it. I suspect that the launch of our package for making ‘The Green Switch’ was only getting even the sixth headline this morning – behind the latest Tory policy-free PR exercise – because the environment is flavour of the month.

So making the case nationally is hard slog and will only get intermittent attention – we know that, we’ve been doing it solidly for two decades, even if the Tories have stolen a march on us by getting it into their main slogan. I’m a little less hostile than James Graham to a ‘litany’ slogan, but since the year 2000 I’d argued (and usually lost) at the Federal Policy Committee that each of our manifestos and pre-manifestos should have something green as part of their ‘three words’ (usually losing out to trust / honesty, which I always disliked as a hostage to fortune). Perhaps it’s because there’s no populist buzz-word ending in ‘y’ for line-ups like ‘Freedom, Justice, Honesty’ or ‘Freedom, Fairness, Trust’ - yes, our 2001 and 2005 General Election Manifestos had essentially the same theme. I always quite liked ‘Free, Green and Fair / Free, Fair and Green’ (having proposed one of those varients as a Manifesto title since about 2000, usually to deaf ears), though I notice for the local elections we managed to include ‘greener’ but ditch freedom for ‘safety’, about which Ben Franklin had a thing to say.

Something else we’ve done solidly over the last decade is to emphasise the green backbone running through our policies by putting a ‘Green Action’ box on every page of our General and Euro-election Manifestos. We’ve done a much better job of translating the environment into catchy voter appeal than we have individual freedom, though the two are intertwined: freedom needs good health, which must be safeguarded by a decent environment both for people today and for future generations, or, for the more economically liberal-minded among us, because damage to our environment impoverishes economies too. I’ve contributed to the last three rounds of General Election Manifestos, and though I know how occasionally a ‘Green Action’ point can seem forced into a policy area or two, the vast majority have been highly effective.

Don’t just take my word for it (or the Green Party’s less charitable analysis). I wasn’t a candidate in last year’s election, so I don’t have comparative figures to hand – if any reader can enlighten me, please post a comment – but that ‘Green Action’ had a major impact on our 2001 Manifesto. In a comparative test, Friends of the Earth gave it 37.5 out of 50, against Labour’s “feeble” 23 and the Tories’ appalling 6.5, with the Greens only just ahead on 42 and, as you’d expect, on some issues we beat them. To come bang up to date, according to Greenpeace's Executive Director Stephen Tindale, Ming’s latest big environment speech “set the gold standard for green speeches”. Update: and as well as useful Lib Dem pieces on ‘The Green Switch’ from Joe Otten and Joe Taylor, it’s received good notices from Friends of the Earth.

It’s easy to pick away at individuals, and if you read some of the comments from correspondents more favourable to the Green Party on yesterday’s piece you’ll spot plenty of it, whether partisan or entirely fair. Where one party has nearly 5,000 councillors and makes real decisions and the other has nearly 100 and, er, doesn’t, it’s bound to be much easier to find Lib Dems that are dodgy than Greens (though it took them a while to live down David Icke, obviously). We shouldn’t swallow every accusation uncritically, but equally, when anyone – partisan or not – points out our imperfections we should give them a serious look and see if we can’t do better. I know that I’m a very long way from perfectly green; I’ve got Donnachadh’s book, but not yet dared read it, and I’ve just this very morning placed a large ‘kick me’ sign on myself on Ian’s blog about 4x4s (I replied to both his replies to me at about noon today; the trouble with moderated blogs is that you can wait a very long time for the editor to publish your contribution to the conversation). Don’t undersell our achievements in local government, though; if ALDC have any remaindered copies of Free, Green, Fair & Honest – A Liberal Democrat Action Plan for the 2002 Local Elections, grab one. As well as making an excellent case for why we take a green approach, it’s got lashings of ideas for how to make your council greener, all taken from Lib Dem councils in practice. I remember being gobsmacked when writing it at how good the ideas coming out of Eastleigh Council were, for example. Oh, er, didn’t I say? Well, all right, I wrote that one, but I’m sure their more recent ones are just as good ;-)

To finish on a cheery note, you may have seen a brace of issue-based opinion polls during the local elections. With Labour’s NHS plans booed by nurses and fantastic Tory publicity on green issues, the Conservatives had gone into a close second place on health and on the environment. In each case, though, they were behind us. Yes, the Liberal Democrats are the party most trusted on health and on the environment. How do we capitalise on that lead, if a couple of decades of the Lib Dems nationally talking solidly about the environment has us just ahead, but still lacking the commanding lead we deserve?

What we can do nationally is come up with a good, green ‘unique selling point’. For years, we’ve tried to come up with a green equivalent to clarity of the ‘penny on income tax’. It’s been jolly hard – I know that, of all the ‘Ten Reasons to Vote Liberal Democrat’ last year, coming up with one really strong green one as opposed to our already strong holistic programme was particularly difficult. Regular readers may have noticed that I’ve said for some time we should be clearer on reducing taxes on the lowest earners with the proceeds from higher environmental taxes, and that seems to be what our Environment Spokesperson feels too. Another alternative might be on power generation if, as I suggested a couple of days ago, we come up with a really strong alternative to nuclear. However, though I don’t have a ‘magic bullet’ policy, I do have an instinct for where it might be found – if we can find a powerful policy that links the environment to health. Not only does it combine two issues on which the Liberal Democrats are already rated highly, but health is probably the biggest opportunity to make the environment ‘sexy’ to people who don’t usually let it bother them. Year in, year out, opinion polls still also tend to show health as the most important issue to people, and problems like pollution have a strong bearing on people’s health. Why not say so? It’s common sense that good health must be safeguarded by a decent environment, and many of us have used campaign lines like ‘Green action to help our health’. If we’re serious about tackling the causes of ill health, preventable illnesses tend to come from pollution, poverty and poor housing, so it could just be the missing link in our message.

So that’s my national prescription; be positive, keep plugging our own alternative policies, but make them sharper, and always watch out to see if we can get better. But for Liberal Democrats, the national message is never the whole story. The last of these articles will reveal that there’s another way to gain the green vote, and doubtless to your great relief, it’s short, simple, and you can even do it from home…

Excellent post Alex,

In spite of what I've said I don't have the feeling that the Greens (most of them) are scary extremists. My focus on economic planning was a response to Matt's reference to "anti-capitalism". Mostly they are nice middle-class people like us and would balk at anything too authoritarian.

Within the greens there are people with reasonably moderate economic views alongside anarchists and state-socialists. Their economic policy has elements from each, and is so unclear so that they don't each realise they are against two-thirds of it.

And I'm not sure that the scary policies matter that much. What bothers me is the extent to which theological purity has come to trump practical consequences. For example, that technology doesn't have the answer is theological. Now, sure, we shouldn't rely on any technologies that don't yet exist, nobody can predict what direction technology will take. But I think we can rely on technologies that do exist.

And these theologically-driven ideas achieve unstoppable momentum. Recycling for instance, is often pretty marginal in its benefits. Many Greens, for a long time, would say "let's shut up about recycling and focus on other things". But it didn't catch on - recycling is too powerful and simple an idea. Now everybody believes in it, and to argue is to give succour to the anti-environmental enemy.
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