UKIP are dominating the headlines, the Greens are enjoying a surge in the polls, but who should secure your vote?
First things first. They may be surging in the polls and dominating the headlines, but green business executives are about as likely to vote for UKIP in tomorrow's European and council elections as Nigel Farage is to make it onto the Romanian ambassador's Christmas card list.
The bulk of UKIP's hostility and contempt may be reserved for Brussels bureaucrats and eastern European immigrants, but the party keeps a healthy chunk of disdain in reserve for environmentalists and the green economy. This apparently non-racist party that just happens to include a sizeable number of candidates who keep saying racist things, may not have anything as coherent as an environmental strategy, but its aggressive dismissal of climate science, criticism of renewable energy, and opposition to effective European environmental regulations is a matter of record. As Greenpeace's John Sauven recently observed, "if you want to swim in sewage, vote UKIP". It is hard to imagine how anyone who regards themselves as an environmentalist can seriously vote UKIP this week.
That does not mean, however, that all environmentalists should be pro-European. It is entirely possible to be a staunch supporter of the green economy and fiercely Eurosceptic. Norway has shown you can be a pioneer in green investment while operating outside the confines of the EU. It may be fair to say the majority of UK environmentalists are pro-European and in favour of the bloc's relatively demanding green regulations, but there are a number of Conservatives who are simultaneously committed to the creation of a low carbon economy and a British exit from the EU. It is legitimate to argue that freedom from Brussels' red tape could help green businesses and clean tech firms innovate and grow, just as it is possible to despair of the environmental damage done by policies such as the Common Agricultural Policy.
However, if you accept these anti-EU arguments it is a reason to vote for an increasingly Eurosceptic Conservative Party led by a Prime Minister who is committed to the long term decarbonisation of the UK. It is not a reason to vote for a party that denies the need to decarbonise at all. You cannot be a serious politician and refuse to take climate change seriously, which is just one of the many reasons why Nigel Farage is not a serious politician.
But if we can safely assume that green business execs and environmental campaigners won't be voting for UKIP, who will you be voting for?
The first point to make is that you really should vote. All the polls suggest turnout will once again be depressingly low, but the fact is these elections matter for a lot of reasons, many of which relate to the environment and the health of the green economy.
On the narrow domestic front, the results of tomorrow's vote will have a major impact on the main parties' strategy in the run up to next year's general election. Will a disappointing Conservative performance convince David Cameron to tack back towards his pro-green modernisation strategy or, as appears more likely, force him to lurch even more dramatically to the right? Might a strong showing from the Green Party (currently enjoying some of its strongest poll scores in years) force Labour and the Lib Dems to try and shore up support to their left by putting forward a more compelling green offer? The final result of these elections will help answer all these questions.
More importantly though, the 73 MEPs who are this week elected to represent the UK in Brussels will have a major influence over the bloc's long term inter-locking energy, environment and economic strategies. The new in-take will have crucial decisions to make on a raft of environmental issues, and most importantly will have to soon vote on the EU's overarching energy and climate strategy for 2030. With polls across the bloc suggesting anti-European parties, many of which oppose environmental policies, are poised for a strong showing, it is critical those who want to see the EU take a more ambitious stance on climate change elect MEPs to represent them.
The question for those green business types mulling their ballot paper tomorrow is which party will best provide that representation.
As the Carbon Brief blog makes clear in an excellent recent summary of the main parties' green policy positions, the Conservatives, Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Greens (not to mention the nationalist parties of the SNP and Plaid Cymru) each boast a package of proposals that could win over green business voters. There is near universal support for an ambitious climate change and energy package for 2030, for the EU to play a lead role in international climate talks, and for the bloc to enhance its energy security through energy efficiency measures and a transition towards domestic low carbon energy.
Those voters who classify themselves as "green Tories" will be heartened to see the Party's EU manifesto state that its MEPs acknowledge the "need to secure energy at an affordable price, cut carbon in order to help prevent dangerous climate change, and reduce our reliance on any one technology or source of supply".
It remains to be seen if these welcome commitments prove sufficient at winning over prospective green voters, particularly when relations between some parts of the Conservative Party and the UK environmental movement are at a decidedly low ebb. The commitment to emission cuts coupled with the party's "long term economic" plan may be enough to secure some green business voters. But others will point to the recent attacks on wind farms, the willingness to work with Poland to boost European fracking, and the various domestic policy rows over energy efficiency and flood protection, and conclude the days of "vote blue, go green" are well and truly over. Add in the fact that a number of Conservative MEPs have a track record of voting against progressive environmental policies, sometimes even defying their party leadership to do so, and the green case for voting blue looks decidedly shaky.
In contrast, Labour appears to be edging towards offering an increasingly green proposition to the electorate. The party's European election manifesto does not provide huge amounts of detail on its decarbonisation strategy, but taken with its other recent policy pledges it is clear the opposition wants to see an ambitious EU climate strategy backed by increased low carbon investment in the UK. We will have to wait until next year to see precisely how compelling an offer Labour will put forward to the green economy, but with the party committed to a 2030 decarbonisation target, preparing plans for a new domestic energy efficiency strategy, and promising to crack down on unabated coal power there are reasons to be optimistic. Whether or not these progressive policies manage to offset on-going concerns within parts of the business community over the viability of Labour's high profile energy price freeze (and its wider economic strategy) remains to be seen, but it is clear Labour MEPs would be broadly supportive of the green business community.
The same can be said of Liberal Democrat MEPs, many of whom have a strong track record of championing environmental issues in the corridors of Brussels. However, judging by the polls it seems unlikely that their impressive green voting record and ambitious green manifesto will save them from a historically poor performance. As with next year's election, the Liberal Democrat leadership will argue, with some justification, that it has been a driving force behind the successful green policies the coalition has introduced. But sadly for Lib Dem supporters nothing seems to be able to stop the junior coalition party getting badly squeezed.
All of which leaves us with the Green Party. It may still be something of a stretch to describe the Greens as "pro-business", but the party is certainly nowhere near as anti-business as it used to be and has put together a manifesto that, while heavy on nationalisation of railways and classic tax-and-spend left wing thinking, also contains plenty of proposals on energy efficiency and clean technologies that would hugely benefit green businesses.
Of course, the party remains a long way from delivering on these proposals (a reality that would make plenty of business leaders breathe a sigh of relief), but under the EU electoral system it has the potential to send MEPs to Brussels who would push climate change up the agenda and argue for more ambitious environmental policies. It could be claimed that at times this approach has proven counter-productive, with the Green grouping at the parliament occasionally opposing compromise agreements that could have delivered progressive, if imperfect, green policies. But at a time when a number of climate sceptic parties are on the up and mainstream parties are often guilty of letting environmental issues slip down the agenda, there is a strong case for ensuring a vocal green presence in Brussels. Growing numbers of voters evidently agree with this assessment, with the most recent polls suggesting the Greens could beat the Lib Dems into fifth place.
As with any election, it is impossible to find a party that fits perfectly with your views. You could support the Greens' commitment to making climate change a national priority, but be wary of their anti-nuclear stance. Just as you could want to reward green Tory plans to focus on affordable clean technologies, and deplore the climate scepticism and anti-wind farm stance of some Conservatives. Much of the recent rhetoric from Conservative politicians may be deeply worrying for those of us who care about the green economy, but the Party, on paper at least, remains fully committed to tackling climate change.
Thankfully, despite numerous reports to the contrary, the political consensus on the green economy is still robust enough that four of the top five parties have a credible pitch for green business voters. And what is particularly encouraging about this election, is that you can vote for any of these four parties - the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, Labour, and, yes, the Green Party - without worrying that your vote is wasted.
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