Election 2017: On the environment, and much else, it is time for a new style of politics

James Murray
Election 2017: On the environment, and much else, it is time for a new style of politics

Theresa May's campaign singularly failed to tackle the big issues of the age - it is time the political class fronted up

Where to begin? Perhaps with the observation Belgium once went 535 days without a government. It's one way to avoid a hard Brexit I suppose. If no one turns up for a negotiation can anyone hear it collapse?

At the time of writing, a period of intense political instability looks inevitable (that's an evergreen sentence that works for pretty much any point over the past two years, and probably the next decade or so). The words "strong and stable" can only be uttered with an eye-roll - or a sob. The Tories can just about form a government with the backing of the DUP, but it is nowhere near a workable majority and every vote will be on a knife edge. The future of the UK's foxes looks considerably brighter than that of the Prime Minister.

If there is one upside from the Conservative's implosion, let it be that the evasive style of campaigning pioneered by Cameron and adopted wholesale by May must be consigned to the dustbin of history. Running as an enigma wrapped in a deliberately vague manifesto, inside a tautological sound bite is to treat the electorate with contempt - they noticed, and they were not impressed.

For Labour the question is whether Jeremy Corbyn has enthused and mobilised everyone he is ever going to appeal to or whether the party now has all the momentum (pun intended) in British politics. Brace yourself for a summer of Conservative leadership speculation and a second election in the not too distant future.

This shock result contains a number of immutable political lessons, several of which touch upon the green economy and the environmental agenda.

As the Guardian's Polly Toynbee noted yesterday, it always comes down the economy, stupid. To win an election when living standards are being squeezed is historically tough, a fact May will regret ignoring. The Conservatives clung far too closely to a failed austerity programme and did not make nearly enough of their plans to deliver a more activist industrial strategy, which could have been built on investment in low carbon infrastructure, clean tech innovation, and green jobs.

Secondly, the environment is, in the words of former Green Alliance boss Matthew Spencer, a hygiene issue. The public expects an ambitious green strategy as standard. Poll after poll shows they like action on climate change, love renewables, and adore animals. Ambitious green policies may not win you many votes outside the 'green ghetto', but their absence, or more accurately the failure to promote them, will lose you votes as supporters of your opponents become more motivated.

If, in a tight poll, you threaten to eviscerate foxes, dilute ivory trade regulations, boost unpopular fracking projects while having little to say on popular renewables, and refuse to strongly condemn a US president committed to planetary-level recklessness then you will alienate a sizeable chunk of the population, while only appealing to a small and ageing constituency who were always going to vote for you. We'll never know if a more progressive line on environmental issues and animal rights would have got May over the line, but there is strong anecdotal evidence that fox hunting in particular cut through both online and on the doorstep.

Finally, you need to give people something to vote for, a vision that goes beyond the claim to be 'the least worst option'; you can't treat voters with barely concealed irritation. The Conservative manifesto had some positive and interesting things to say on the green economy, innovation, and the role of the state, and the Party had some credible and intelligent candidates at its disposal. They should have been deployed to talk about an attractive plan for investing in R&D and building a competitive, modern economy. There should have been clarity on the type of Brexit the government wants to pursue, complete with reassurances that the freedoms and protections the public overwhelmingly supports would be retained. Instead we got robotic and meaningless soundbites and a disgraceful refusal by the Prime Minister to debate the big issues buffeting the UK. 

What are the implications of a hung parliament for the green economy? They are likely to be considerable and at this stage it is impossible to tell whether they will be net positive or negative.

On the plus side, there is still an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons for climate action and a more conciliatory, softer approach to Brexit. There is also the hope that when the Conservative Party leadership looks at the post-mortem of this awful campaign it will recognise there is political capital to be had in engaging more fully with the environmental issues a vast majority of the public care about. If centrists Tories can hold their nerve it is hard to see how May can push through either a self-harming Brexit or unpopular environmentally damaging policies.

However, this optimism has to be balanced by the likelihood of further delays to a raft of crucial green policy decisions and on-going confusion about how the Brexit process will play out.

The government was already struggling with insufficient bandwidth even before May created this self-inflicted political dumpster fire. The climate does not care for seat counts and international investors only care in so much as they may simply encourage them to place their capital elsewhere. As such long-awaited policy moves such as the publication of the Clean Growth Plan, clarification on funding for clean energy beyond 2020, the finalisation of the air quality plan, visibility on the future of EU environmental regulations, and the resolution of critical issues such as agricultural subsidies and how to replace Euratom are required with the upmost urgency. Instead, it now looks likely that efforts to address these vital issues will be deferred yet again, undermining the UK's competitiveness and increasing the risk of an investment hiatus in the process

Equally, attempts to resolve the inherent tensions in the Conservative manifesto will also be delayed. The question of whether to support a new wave of onshore wind farms was left tantalisingly open, while the manifesto did not say nearly enough on topics such as solar, tidal lagoons, energy efficiency, and the circular economy. These issues were likely to be addressed in the Clean Growth Plan and through the promised energy cost review following an inevitable bout of political in-fighting between the green and climate sceptic wing of the Conservative Party. That crucial battle is now likely to be delayed further thanks to the current confusion.

Finally, there is a very real risk the DUP's extreme stance on climate change and Brexit could tip the battle in favour of a series of politically expedient but economically and environmentally damaging decisions. Sensible Conservatives will have to be on their mettle to avoid such an outcome. They should be mobilising already to make it clear to the Prime Minister or whoever succeeds her that when it comes to partnering with a ideologically motivated party that could create major problems for the Northern Ireland peace process then no deal can actually be better than a bad deal.

This was an election called for partisan and arrogant political reasons. It would heap tragedy on top of farce if the new government fails to recognise the message from the electorate is a stinging rebuke to those who put party ahead of the long term interests of the country.

The UK faces an historic, epoch shaping challenge to harness rapidly changing technologies and build a modern, sustainable, low carbon economy at the same time as finding a new position in the world in partnership with our allies and neighbours. That means prioritising the structural, long term challenges the UK faces and ending the interminable deferall of difficult decisions on climate action and low carbon infrastructure.

Our political class urgently needs to prove in the coming days and weeks that it is up to the task. That would be as good a place as any to begin.

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