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A Green Liberal Future?

December 1, 2003 12:00 AM
By Andy Mayer in Challenge

Andy Mayer suggests many Green policies could be more liberal

Liberal Future is an organisation dedicated to encouraging new thinking amongst liberals both within and without the Liberal Democrat Party. It seeks to bring together those who believe in the central tenet of liberalism: that there should be less power for government and the state and more power for individuals and communities.

Liberal Future believes, like David Walter, that there has been a 'Strange rebirth of Liberal Britain' and that the Liberal Democrats should be the Party to inherit that legacy. The group also believes that, to achieve that end, we need to improve our credibility with the public as a Party fit to govern.

Given that positioning, there is much about the Party's Green approach to welcome. The strategic theme of sustainable development is liberal and an excellent anchor point of consistency throughout the policy portfolio. Many of the key policy items such as the carbon tax, emissions trading and a green tax commission are liberal to their core. Being seen as the greenest Party is a good thing that attracts moderate voters from across the political spectrum.

There are, however, causes for concern - less the content and principle behind our environmental policies, more the language we use to talk about them and the consistency with our approach to other policy areas.

The alarm bells began ringing for me in the Green Matters supplement to Lib Dem News in July where the view was expressed that we should be prepared to 'sacrifice our cherished liberal views' for some environmental goals.

There are a number of reasons why this will do nothing for the cause of Green liberalism and the Liberal Democrats in general.

Since the high point of 1989/90, environmental issues have been down and up but are usually much lower down the political priority list than health, education and crime. The public does not believe that we are facing any credible environmental crisis so paramount that it is likely to dominate voting behaviour. Even GM food, which as a single issue provokes widespread fear and suspicion, barely registers in the monthly trend data for the key issues that decide national elections.

Green policies tend to play best in local, regional and European elections but nationally are more likely to be used by opponents to trip us up. When we do talk about Green issues, as Nick Clegg suggests in his recent piece in The Guardian, we need to be extremely focussed on what that actually matters to the public rather than talking to ourselves. I would suggest that there is a tendency for more illiberal Green elements to reflect activist rather than public priorities. Attracting green voters is not the same thing as attracting activists from the Green Party.

Recent comments from our Parliamentary spokesman against 4x4 vehicles is a case in point: what would have been a good point for a councillor in an area blighted by road traffic accidents was of questionable wisdom coming from the national Party.

Like the stories about meteorites, these comments accumulate to paint a picture of an out-of-touch Party with dubious priorities. Self-discipline on the targeting of comments about solar panels and home composting would be welcome.

The Party prides itself on submitting a fully costed manifesto every year and of being the honest broker of British politics. On this score, many of our Green policies trouble me. There is a surprising lack of detail on exactly how much things are going to cost. Ending fuel poverty, zero waste, a national flood task force and improving the environmental efficiency of housing all would have to meet a revenue neutrality test to be allowed as policy but I find it hard to believe this has been particularly rigorous. I personally wouldn't feel confident explaining how we are going to pay for this on the doorstep.

Also I get the impression that those putting forward the policies are fully aware that they might mean tax rises. Whenever challenged, caveats are usually added on the lines that such policies will encourage job creation and better long-term health (and, by implication, lower health service costs).

Such assumptions are questionable and need to be tightened up.

The bulk of our Green policies would increase red tape and are specifically designed to damage one 'bad' part of the economy to benefit the 'good'. This might be zero sum, it might mean growth, lower growth, more or less jobs but we appear not to have a coherent idea either way. Further, if taxes do have to rise to meet Green targets, this will have a further depressive effect on growth and productivity. Taxation for a political objective is not always akin to investment in economic infrastructure.

Savings on healthcare are also highly dubious. Certainly happier healthier people will change the shape of healthcare. But this usually means we will simply be dying of different things and demanding ever more effective and expensive treatments to deal with them.

The possibility of higher taxes and lower growth has been hinted at from some proponents but I question both the necessity and desirability of this message. We should have the imagination and foresight to make our Green vision compatible with economic growth within the context of a regulated free market, not a substitute.

There are other examples in the language that could cause consistency problems. For example, the implication of recent discussions about airport locations and aviation fuel is that we should fly less. When people say this, they often mean other people should fly less - this means poor people.

Affordable air travel, like the motorcar and the train in the 20th and 19th century, has empowered individuals and families to broaden their horizons and see the world that was formerly only available to those with greater wealth. This, I have no doubt, has helped create the new liberal generation and helped support growing internationalism.

Our goal is not less flights; it's less polluting flights and we should be incentivising R&D to encourage that future. We can tolerate a little pollution if the long-term exit strategy is credible and the social benefits outweigh the social costs. Denying people access to affordable flights is at odds with our vision of social justice and a more liberal society

We don't have enough houses in Britain, they are not in the right places and, as a result, where people want them they cost too much. Our Green agenda for housing and development is probably going to make this worse by raising the costs of development and improving the chances Nimbies have to stop building. Not so much 'sustainable development' as no development.

One element of this is the notion (despite, for example, Surrey being 70% Greenbelt) that the South-East is full Where the BNP bait asylum seekers and paint a picture of an England unable to cope, some moderates deploy the same language in relation to the regions. The cry of "send'em back" is now being interwoven into discussions about Liverpool rather than Jamaica and environmental rather than racial purity is being used as one of the excuses.

Pandering to nimby prejudices is dangerously illiberal. The primary motivation for nimbyism is not preserving communities or the environment: it is naked greed. If 'you' can't build in 'my' desirable area, my house price goes up. Conservatism and conservation is a nasty alliance to control the supply of affordable housing.

Liberal Democrats need to be extremely careful that our desire to defend Green goals does not put our more basic objectives out of reach.

One of the least credible claims in our recent energy policy paper is the notion that we can deliver an economy that uses less energy in decades to come. It is a somewhat eccentric view of human progress. The message about improving energy efficiency and renewable energy sources by rigging the market is correct. However, we just do not know what energy demands will be likely in future. It seems odd to believe that they will be anything other than greatly more than today.

The explosion of communication technologies, new forms of transport, air conditioning, personal devices and cyber products will be very energy intensive. The Green liberal issue is the sustainability of the energy source, not the volume of energy generated.

We know that the environment is probably not going to be the defining issue of the next election. We also know that the Murdoch/Tory alliance will attempt to use this and other touchstone radical issues to paint us as the 'loony left' rather than the progressive liberals that we are.

Part of our political 'sustainable development' strategy - to become the Party of opposition and then government - needs to consider this risk in relation to environmental policy as much as education, health and the economy.

When Liberal Future analysed the LibDem Brighton conference policy agenda against a benchmark, it was the Green policies that tended to come out as least liberal. The tests that tended to cause most difficulty were:

In sum, our Green policies reflect not so much the 'loony left' as the 'lazy left', reaching for centralised state control and targets rather than setting the rules and leaving individuals, communities and other stakeholders to get on with it. This is Green authoritarianism, not liberalism, and it is at odds with our approach to other areas of the public sphere where we attack targets and scrap government departments that do not work.

This is not just poor philosophically: it is a political own goal. The language of liberalism is more in tune with the desires and ambitions of the young and the nation in general than clapped out control-freakery. Liberal solutions, by giving the consumer - not the producer or bureaucrats - ultimate choice stand a much better chance of changing behaviour and working for the environment in the long-term.

It would be heartening to hear more of that radical message in our environmental policies and for our key spokespeople to leave the illiberalism and parochialism behind us. Less is not more for a Green Liberal Future.

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