The post-election pursuit of aspirational voters and the centre ground is hopelessly simplistic, but if this is the narrative green businesses should promote their obvious part in it
Where is the political centre ground? If one question can sum up the miles of column inches and lost hours of political soul-searching that have defined the week since David Cameron's shock election victory this is it. And if much of this analysis is to be believed the answer lies in the endless pursuit of the right combination of the words aspiration, hard-working families, and 'John Lewis couple' - a pursuit so lacking in real insight that the one true aspiration of all hard-working families and John Lewis shoppers is fast becoming the impossible dream of not being condescended to by the political class.
However, if the past week has taught us nothing it is that once a narrative has been set running it can shape the political landscape for decades. So, if we have to have a debate about the truism that political parties can only win from the centre ground (without anyone adequately defining that term) it is important that green businesses and environmentalists offer a vocal reminder that the centre ground is their true natural habitat.
For too long environmental issues have been subjected to the lazy caricature that they are inherently left-wing. You know the sort of thing, the absurd belief that only socialists care about clean air and water, which used to be the preserve of the wilder fringes of libertarian blogosphere but is now standard fare for the Telegraph and Times comment pages. This trope has long been a source of amusement among mainstream environmentalists, not least because it implies the chief executives of some of the world's most successful companies are traitors to capitalism because of their commitment to tackling environmental challenges. But with a centre right government in power for the next five years, the perception the green economy is the sole preserve of the left is anything but a joke. In fact, it could soon represent a serious threat to the UK's clean tech competitiveness and climate security.
David Cameron's decision to appoint some impressive modernising centrist voices to key green ministerial roles may have represented a reassuring first move from the government. But there is little doubt there are right wing politicians and commentators who will make hampering the development of the green economy and propping up fossil fuel interests one of their top priorities for the next five years. A media storm is coming for green businesses, which may stop just short of full blown climate scepticism, but will do everything in its considerable power to present green policies as unnecessary, costly, and, yes, left wing.
Consequently, it is critical green businesses get their defence in early and assert once again that both the green economy and environmental issues such as climate change do not fit neatly onto this increasingly bankrupt left-right spectrum.
There are no doubt people who can argue that because it is a shared experience our environment is inherently left wing, but these are the same people who think buses are Stalinist and as such can be safely ignored. The reality is that if protection of our shared environmental resources is a left wing shibboleth, conservation of environmental resources that must be handed down through the generations is a central tent of conservatism. If business is a solely right wing construct (and it is not) and green issues are a solely left wing construct (and they are not), then where do green businesses sit if not in the centre?
Meanwhile, at the practical policy level if green regulations and government investment are part of a supposedly left wing response to environmental risk, green tax breaks and the world's clean tech entrepreneurs and corporate R&D labs are supposedly right wing concepts. The nexus of technology, science, risk, governance, investment, and behaviour that represents climate change and our response to it is far too important to be confined to one political tradition. In so much as they are fundamentally about where we live, how we live, and the challenges and opportunities we face these issues are right at the very heart of the centre ground.
And they are also about aspiration. The biggest failure of the environmental movement over pretty much its entire history is the manner in which it has allowed itself to be characterised as being anti-progress, and at its worst anti-human, when it is actually a deeply progressive movement (in the non-political sense) focused on enabling happier, safer, and more fulfilling communities.
The green economy can and should play a key role in the aspiration agenda that politicians of all stripes are now seeking to embrace. After all, if the clichéd short-hand for middle class aspiration is one of new cars, home improvement programmes, and a good and rewarding job, then clean technologies and green industries have something compelling and attractive to offer on each of these fronts. The manner in which green products are already characterised as being the preserve of a certain kind of middle class family - John Lewis shoppers, if you will - only underlines how the sector is already shaping this admittedly narrow understanding of aspirational consumption. The green economy can help meet material aspirations even before you consider people also aspire for clean air and beautiful natural environments in which to raise their families.
There are plenty of green technologies and policies that a truly centrist political project, be it from a government that lives up to Cameron's One Nation promise or a revitalised Labour opposition, could embrace (community energy, solar schools, a revamped Green Deal, electric vehicles, Green ISAs, are just a few that spring to mind). Meanwhile, as George Marshall has pointed out in a series of recent articles, there are also plenty of issues that highlight how the green economy and action on climate change extends far beyond the left to marry with a host of traditionally right wing concerns, including conservation, intergenerational justice, security, and national pride.
All of this is so obvious that it shouldn't really need saying, but it is also much easier said than done. Marshall's critique of an environmental movement that is too comfortable in a left wing enclave has plenty to recommend it, but for me it slightly underplays the extent to which some green figures have been trying for years to engage with right wing commentators and arguments in a bid to highlight areas of shared concern and interest. Too often these well-meaning efforts have been welcomed by a level of ideological obstinacy that is at least the equivalent of the left's, and which in its worst cases is coupled with a reckless disregard for credible scientific warnings and a reluctance to engage fully with the evidence base that gives modern clean technologies their credibility.
However, there is nothing to be gained in retreating from this hostility and allowing the erroneous idea that the right has little to do with environmental issues to become entrenched. After all, the political centre ground is there for the green economy to command, not least because that is where it has always sat.
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