The Lib Dems have come out fighting for the green economy this week,and it could make a big difference to the UK's future
Whisper it, but the whipping boys of British politics have just got something right. It is unlikely to help their lowly poll ratings, nor improve the standing of Nick Clegg's much-ridiculed leadership, but over the past week the Liberal Democrats have taken a series of steps that should prove of invaluable long term benefit to the British economy. There has been little fanfare and scant media attention, but the junior coalition party has used its annual shindig in Brighton to revive one of its more attractive qualities: its unwavering support for the green economy and, more importantly, the desire to fight for it.
With this year's party conference season falling neatly at the half-way point for the parliament, each of the three main parties will use their annual gatherings to sketch out their strategy for the next two and half years and begin jostling for position at the next election.
The Lib Dems have adhered faithfully to these expectations, mapping out a two-pronged strategy designed to gradually address those appalling poll numbers.
The first part of this strategy – stick slavishly to the austerity agenda with some modest tinkering around the edges to help restore growth and ensure the pain is spread fairly – is, in my opinion, utterly self-defeating and barring a remarkable economic recovery both coalition parties can expect a severe kicking at the next election. A plebiscite, lest we forget, that will be dominated by the "plebs" who have suffered most during this double-dip recession.
The government might not have many options available to it, but clinging to an economic strategy that is both demonstrably failing and demonstrably regressive is electoral kryptonite to any party, particularly one with progressive pretensions. It is the state of the wider economy that will continue to dominate the next two weeks and the next two and half years, and barring a wholly unforeseen economic recovery the Lib Dems are toast.
But the second part of the Lib Dem's strategy – a process of concerted differentiation driven in large part by its record on the environment – is both astute and welcome. And what is more, it could deliver a significant positive legacy from the Lib Dem's time in power, regardless of whether or not they are heading for electoral oblivion.
As one observer told me, the first two days of the Lib Dem conference could have been renamed the Green Lib Dem conference. Important motions were passed that mean the official Liberal Democrat party position is now in favour of a decarbonisation target for the power sector, opposed to airport expansion in the south east and in favour of a more efficient use of existing runway capacity, supportive of the Green Investment Bank being able to borrow as soon as possible, and highly critical of "perverse" climate scepticism and the right wing argument that we cannot afford investment in green industries.
Lib Dem ministers are far too polite (far too typically Lib Dem) to stoke coalition tensions through explicit attacks on their Conservative colleagues (a courtesy that is unlikely to be returned in two weeks' time), but the subtext from influential figures such as Ed Davey, Danny Alexander, and Nick Clegg has been clear: "We are committed to the low carbon economy and we will fight to protect this government's green credentials".
Of course, this raft of pro-green speeches and conference motions could easily be dismissed as warm words to cheer a party faithful in desperate need of something to cheer about. But the nature and timing of these moves feels different, which is why they could herald a significant and important boost to the UK's green economy.
As has been well documented over the past few months, the government is in the throes of a fierce internal battle about the role and reach of the green economy. A battle that broadly pits Lib Dems and modernising Tories against the Treasury and the right wing of the Conservative Party, and which has crystallised around a series of crucial policy issues: whether or not to green light airport expansion; whether or not to allow the Green Investment Bank to borrow; whether or not to slash renewable energy subsidies; and whether or not to include a decarbonisation target for the electricity sector in the upcoming Energy Bill.
This conference has put the Lib Dems even more explicitly on the green growth side of all of these arguments and has made it all but impossible for ministers to cave in to carbon-intensive demands from their coalition partners if they want to retain a scrap of credibility with their own party.
Specifically, it makes Davey's upcoming battle with Osborne over the controversial decarbonisation target a must-win for the Lib Dems. It was premature for Friends of the Earth this week to suggest that it would be a resignation issue for Davey if he could not deliver the proposed target (the talks have not even begun yet and ratcheting up the pressure at this early stage helps no one). But he will be all too aware that the Lib Dem's environmental strategy rests heavily on his ability to deliver an effective and successful Energy Bill that does not enable a new large-scale "dash for gas".
It is inevitable that as part of a coalition government the Lib Dems will not be able to deliver on all their green priorities. But if the Lib Dems stick to their guns and secure some modest concessions from the Conservatives (admittedly a pretty big if) it remains possible that they could go to the country in 2015 as the party that drove through an Energy Bill that finally helped to deliver the billions of pounds of investment in green energy infrastructure that the UK desperately needs. Not to mention the party that protected the booming renewable energy industry from swinging Tory-driven cuts, the party that finally convinced George Osborne to support a fully functioning Green Investment Bank, and the party that laid the foundations for an environmentally coherent aviation policy.
As something of a climate action hawk, I'd argue that none of this goes far enough. But with the polls reading like a horror story it is also possible that the Lib Dems will realise that they have nothing to lose by being bolder still on green policies, particularly given polling shows strong public support for renewable energy and green investment (regardless of what you read in certain parts of the media). Davey's speech hinted that the leadership has realised this, announcing that he would start work to explore how the tax system could finally be rebalanced to help promote greener technologies and behaviours.
Unfortunately for the Lib Dems, this explicitly pro-green strategy will not protect them from being forced to take their share of the blame for Osborne and Alexander's flawed economic strategy, just as it will not repair the immense damage done by the broken promises on tuition fees, the association with some startlingly right-wing government policies, and the debilitating effect of Nick Clegg's deep-seated unpopularity.
But the strategy could deliver immense benefits to the UK in the longer term. By explicitly opposing the more extreme anti-green voices from within government the Lib Dems have the opportunity to protect the fast-expanding green economy, deliver the promised environmental policies needed to drive large scale low carbon investment over the next two decades, and, by reaching out to Labour and green Conservatives, help restore the political consensus on the urgent need to tackle climate change (following the Lib Dem conference's explicit support for green policies there is now a perfect opportunity for Ed Miliband to build on his recent attacks against Osborne's anti-environmental stance next week, isolating the chancellor and cranking up pressure on the Prime Minister to distance himself from the pro-pollution wing of the Conservative Party. Equally the mounting tension between green-minded and climate sceptic Conservatives is going to make for a fascinating week in Birmingham next month).
The Lib Dems have been battered and bruised by their time in government and will probably pay a huge electoral price for the economic missteps they have been complicit in. But if they can just deliver the essential energy market reforms that have eluded previous governments while holding the line against the regressive forces of the "pollutocracy", then the country as a whole, and the green economy in particular, will owe them a considerable debt of gratitude.
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