Whither now? Keith Melton's article in Summer 2018 Challenge Magazine
Keith Melton on a rigorous afternoon debate at GLD conference
A technical issue (of not having the correct PowerPoint presentation in place! Mea culpa) meant that the afternoon session ended up with a different mode of working than the original Balloon debate plan I had in mind, and so we had a discussion - perhaps we could call it a "bubble creation" session, which was largely captured on two white boards which happened to be lying around. I will now try to interpret what ideas were put forward and which of those resonated most strongly with the group present. I have attached the photographs of the boards to this document to enable those present to challenge my assumptions if incorrect.
As Louise Harris pointed out in an apparently concurrent tweet - there was a "lot of energy in the room". I suspect the residual energy was partly caused by earlier sessions being abruptly cut off to ensure the conference timing was more or less adhered to - again, "mea culpa" - but this time it was entirely deliberate. People felt the need to get stuff off their chests and into a recorded session - and I have to say it seemed to work well. My sense was that the energy ran out - actually quite suddenly - approximately three minutes before the actual end of the session.
So, this is my personal take and my ordering of the points is to do with significance (as I perceived it, both then and, on reflection, now) - not with a strict time-line of when the ideas appeared on the board.
The Heart of the matter
The heart in the centre of the second board is the most crucial icon on either board and there was a strong consensus that we, the Green Liberal Democrats, should not only put green issues at the very heart of what WE do, but also try to place Green issues at the very heart of what Liberal Democrats are all about. The relevant line in the preamble to the constitution (which Simon Hughes referred to in his morning speech) has been in the preamble from the start of the Liberal Democrats.
"We believe that each generation is responsible for the fate of our planet and, by safeguarding the balance of nature and the environment, for the long-term continuity of life in all its forms."
We need to keep repeating this within Liberal Democrat meetings at all levels until it becomes second nature for all Lib Dems to be able to quote it by heart. It is on a par with the previous paragraph of the preamble which sets out historically understood values of liberalism. Indeed, as I now keep looking at the boards it seems clear that the second board (on the right) is the one which contains the key value statements of the afternoon session, so there is a sense of `summing up` shown by the contents of that board.
Considerable significance was placed upon presenting ourselves with positivity as being FOR things rather than AGAINST things - it was felt to be the stronger position by far (not least, it was linked to an awareness that a failing of the EU referendum debate was the stressing of negative things, related to leaving Europe rather than positive reasons why we should stay). This applies to the argument FOR treating the whole earth with more respect and with more care, rather than being against plastic use for example.
Also important was the sense that came across when we were talking about needing to present the case for radical change as a matter of URGENCY because we are facing potential Climate Catastrophe if we lack urgency in our political responses. We need to generate this sense of urgency both within the party, in dealing with policy matters but also to communicate the urgency of our belief in the need for change to the outside world of actual voters, now; not soon, but NOW! It seems to me that there were five things which emerged from the discussions, which are linked in to this sense of urgency; three were to do with `manner and means` and two were to do with policy areas. There were others that were linked too (in the sense that all the things on both boards were linked together and supported by everyone who is environmentally concerned) but those links were less strong than the links of these five areas.
The three things to do with manner and means were represented by the words "Leadership", "Empowerment" and "Young People". And the two things to do with policy matters related to "Carbon negative" and "Existing Housing stock" - actually `Old Housing` on the board!
There was an incredibly strong feeling that the Green Liberal Democrats not only needed, but had the moral authority and the historical credentials, to take a significant leadership role within the Liberal Democrats, and outwardly facing towards other political parties and the general public in how we should approach the critical environmental issues of the day and what we needed to do to understand and overcome them.
We need to exert leadership within the party to establish priorities for campaigning and it is here that we can perhaps bring in some of the points made in the earlier phase of the discussion which made it onto the first board! Perhaps it would be easier to keep this report coherent if I were to relate these under the Policy Matters heading which follows, starting with the two Urgent actions just noted.
It seems there were several aspects of empowerment which were floating around the discussion. Firstly, the empowerment of people who realise there is someone listening to their (also to our own) concerns. It is apparent that there is a stronger awareness of the environmental problems facing the earth and its biodiverse fauna and flora than politicians of the main parties will act upon or even, perhaps, concede.
The example of the very rapid uptake of the "plastics in our oceans" issue following the Blue Planet 2 television programme, shows the degree to which the general population is both capable of understanding complex issues and willing to take action thereon. Some politicians in the main parties in this country have, of course, tried to respond to the sense of urgency which the general public has engendered, but vested party interests and lack of political will is probably going to mean than neither Tory nor Labour will come up with credible and timely responses to the nature and scale of the problems.
Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and to a lesser extent the SNP have a greater natural affinity with understanding the problems and having some ideas how to respond appropriately to these deep problems.
It was quite clear from the age profile of the delegates to our conference that we had largely failed to capture the imagination of Young Liberal Democrats as a group. There were a few, but very few, exceptions, since the youngest person there was only sixteen years old and had chosen to join the Lib Dems deliberately to be able to come to the conference. There were a couple of other young faces present but no great swathe of `rebellious youth`, seeking to take on the mantle of green revolution for the next thirty years.
There was, however, a very strong strand of hope emerging from the discussion that we do need very much to find a way of involving young Liberal Democrats in our activism. Or, possibly, finding young people who are already active on green issues and persuading them that the Green Lib Dems and, indeed, the Liberal Democrat cause can provide a comfortable home for their ongoing activism. These strands are, of course, not mutually exclusive, but it was obvious that we need to do a much better job of involving youth and diversity into our actions as a group. Our fragile planet home is, after all, THEIR future home too.
Perhaps the most important political or policy element arising within the discussions was that we need to find, discover, or create ways of sequestering carbon dioxide on a much greater scale than presently appears possible, in order to bring about a situation where our country is "carbon negative" by or before the year 2050. Ironically, despite this expression involving the word "negative", we all saw this as one of the most positive factors/policies we could be developing as Green Liberal Democrats.
Indeed, we may need to start referring to it as "saving and storing carbon", so that even the expression becomes positive. There was a very strong sense in our discussions that we need to be using and developing a positive narrative to tell the "Green" story, rather than always emphasising the "doom and gloom" aspects of our beliefs, troublesome though they are and will be.
Existing housing stock
This issue cropped up in the discussion and is recorded on the boards as `Old housing`. The discussion centred around the need to make sure that we worked to ensure our housing stock was brought up as close as possible to "passive house" (or passivhaus) standard for energy efficiency in a building. That is the standard which would reduce a building's ecological footprint resulting in ultra-low energy buildings that require little energy for space heating or cooling.
Here again it is probably important that we move away from talking about "Old housing" stock and use the expression existing housing stock, again to try to provide a positive narrative. One of the first policy initiatives we could develop would be to push for the abolition of VAT on DIY materials relating to insulation and environmentally positive aspects of renovation in order to encourage greater take up of private and community initiatives in this area. The DIY Housebuilders Scheme currently allows you to reclaim VAT from HMRC that you have paid out for your project if you are:
building a new house
converting a building into a new dwelling
bringing an existing dwelling that has not been lived in for 10 years back in to use.
We should seek to extend this facility to projects relating to insulation, or simply campaign to remove VAT from insulation related materials.
Other Policy Issues
Much of the rest of the discussions swirled around the issues people felt were important for Green Liberal Democrats to show leadership on. Some generated more `togetherness` than others, and we may need to go through this sort of exercise again (and again?) to find the areas which were most clearly jointly accepted or acknowledged wide agreement amongst the group and other activists not able to be present at the Nottingham Conference. The following list identifies the issues that came up and were more or less agreeable to the group. The list is in no specific order of priority.
Continue and enhance the campaign against Fracking, perhaps turning it more towards the identification of fracking with the production of plastics instead of just for energy.
Campaign for "Clean Air" - this has elements of the need for a "Clean Air Act" in the 1950s and the campaign against lead in petrol in the 60s and 70s, as well as the campaign against ozone depleting hydrofluorocarbons etc in the 70s and 80s.
We should be making more play about the danger of mass-extinctions and the need to keep bio-diversity at the tops of our minds (and the minds of voters).
There were strong links between clean air, the NHS and mental health to be identified and exposed and utilised in our campaigning.
We should campaign for more onshore wind and make greater play of the Nimbyism of the Tory reaction against onshore wind energy provision, recognising the part it could play in making the country more self-sufficient in renewable energies. We should also be looking at Hydrogen as an increasingly significant energy source.
We should make more effort to raise the profile of fishing farming and land-use in environmental terms, using expertise that is apparently available within the party.
We should get people to "plant a tree" or, more significantly organise local communities to plant more trees (joining the campaign to stop Network Rail culling millions of trees).
There was probably a reasonable strong majority wishing to campaign against Nuclear Power, with some reservations until renewable energy production is in a position to plug the gap that would be left if nuclear options were closed out too soon.
Small scale local energy production fitted in well with community focussed thinking of Liberal Democrats and could play a significant part in campaigning for more local authority councillors in 2019.
Similarly, there should be a great effort to remove the requirement to apply Business Taxation to schools, which has negated much of the good work in environmental schemes that had been started as both educational projects and money-spinners in community educational terms.
There was a strong call for more "joined-up thinking" particularly at local authority level (but also at government level) relating to the impacts of planning, education, housebuilding and provision of community "goods" and common wealth and health.
We should, of course, be campaigning heavily on getting rid of single use plastics and riding that particular wave of emotional thinking amongst the electorate.
Importantly we should be challenging the continuing notion of "Economic Growth" of GDP as a measure of consumer well-being, emphasising the importance of working towards a circular economy rather than the current linear economy model, which results in waste.
We should continue the positive theme by relating the importance of staying within the European Union form the point of view of environmental protection and being Green will lead to a better world.
Overall we should be campaigning in terms of the impact of our activities, or lack of responsibility, on future generations.
Finally, there is one expression on the first board where the implications of the words have escaped me. "Levers save money", but I forget which levers and why they saved money!?
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