Thursday, 22 April 2010

Who to vote for? Single-issue voting for the world of 2020.

This evening I’ll be joining millions of other Brits to watch the second of three televised debates between the major political parties. With Labour, Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats all neck-and-neck in the polls, having seen Obama achieve a radical victory in America, and with the country apparently emerging from bruising economic turmoil, there’s more than a whiff of change in the air and an increasing feeling that perhaps, just perhaps, our votes really can make a difference this time. But what really are the differences between the parties - what key deciding factors should we take into account? And once we’ve decided what we want the outcome to be, then how do we make it happen?

Picking a strategy

With New Labour having become arguably more right-wing than the Conservatives, and all parties increasingly trying to steal each others’ policies to appeal to a growing middle class, it’s hard to just go with a default decision based on old party-political beliefs and traditions.

The credit crunch continues to be the talking point of the moment, but given the need to reduce our public borrowing the parties all seem to be in rough consensus about the necessary economic “trajectory”, so no help in deciding there either.

We change our governing party twice a decade, so 2020 seems a suitable horizon to plan for. What do we want the United Kingdom to look like by then, and what strategy should we follow to get us there?

For me the overwhelming elephant in the room remains climate change. Given the lack of distinguishing features on other topics, in this election I’ve become a “single issue” voter. I’m going to cast my vote entirely on the basis of how I believe my vote will best influence our approach to climate change.

How our country reacts to climate change over the next decade will either see us playing our part as a world citizen, becoming a leader in the transition and reaping the benefits of creating new intellectual-property, revitalising manufacturing in a second industrial revolution of sustainability, and improving our quality of life ... or else it will see continued economic decline driven by less and less investment in engineering, a failure to capitalise on our inventiveness, and the country wracked by an increasingly expensive and unreliable energy supply.

So I’ve been looking at each party’s manifesto, to try to find a sliver of difference on attitudes to climate change on which to make my voting decision.


Labour's huge advantage – and disadvantage – as the incumbents is that rather than have to believe their promises, we can look at their actions. Over the last couple of Labour terms we’ve seen some great political progress on the environment in some areas, for example the creation of the Carbon Trust, the Energy Act and Climate Change Act legally committing us to reducing carbon, the Stern Review, feed-in tariffs, and the Carbon Reduction Commitment. But all of these initiatives still have something of a feeling of “promises, promises” rather than “action this day”, and have been accompanied by seeming foot-dragging in other important areas. One example is the apparent failure to plan substantial new clean generation to secure our energy supply - so not only is our economy increasingly at the mercy of foreign powers, but it looks increasingly likely that by 2015 we may be experiencing rolling blackouts (as David MacKay has warned for years).

From anecdotal reports from people closer than me, I get the strong impression that most of the progress on climate change in the UK has been driven by the people who really run the country (yes, our Civil Service) and that Gordon Brown has indeed been actively resisting some of these schemes. A particularly telling moment which greatly influenced my belief in whether he can grasp the big picture was when he responded to this winter’s heavy snowfalls with the comment that “no-one could have predicted them”. Will he be equally surprised when one day, out of the blue, a storm surge floods part of London, or a hurricane destroys some coastal towns?


OK, it’s so easy to knock the incumbents, what about the Tories? Cameron started pretty well, with Zac Goldsmith and co., and many of the last decade’s political initiatives on climate change have either initiated, or at least supported, by Conservative policy. So, not a bad start, and there’s been some real leadership there – setting out a vision on climate change and working towards it. But there are valid concerns about whether Cameron has the party faithful completely behind him – within the party there is a faction of climate-change sceptics, and a good dose of “nimby” reactionaries to nuclear power and windfarms - plus a separate “market forces” faction that’s seems to want economic growth at any cost, e.g. the Heathrow expansion. So with an eye to a second term, will Cameron be forced to soft-pedal on sustainability?

Rather disappointingly, none of the major parties are currently majoring on climate change in their political posturing. I nurse a hope that this is because they just don’t want to frighten the voters (or trouble our tiny minds), and that once the election is over there’ll be sufficient clear water to really make some progress ... but we’ll see.

For what it’s worth, in March the Conservatives released a policy paper entitled “Rebuilding Security: Conservative Energy Policy for and Uncertain World”, which listed the following priorities:

· Maintaining the security of energy supplies.

· Sustaining the UK’s ecosystems.

· Improving the economics of energy usage for consumers and business.

· Generating opportunities for growth in the British industrial and commercial sectors

Liberal Democrat

During the expenses scandal it was notable that, given plenty of rope, plenty of Labour and Conservative politicians lined-up to hang themselves with it, whereas LibDem MP’s conspicuously failed to do so. That may just possibly be relevant to this debate because climate change requires actions today which may be unpopular, so a degree of moral fibre is required.

Of the three main parties, the LibDem’s have by far the most aggressive agenda in terms of the speed of reducing emissions and increasing clean supply, really focussing on the end-game of “Zero Carbon Britain”, and as a shorter term tactical example, aiming to roll-out smart meters in 5 years not 10. However, having had not much more than a whiff of power for a long time, do they have credibility? Is there a risk that, like Tony Blair in ’97, if they do suddenly find themselves with the reins of power they may be so surprised that they won’t really know what to do with it? I also find their (negative) attitude towards nuclear power a little surprising – personally I feel that it’s probably an essential part of the mix until (and indeed if) we can build enough reliable renewable such as massive-scale tidal generation.


The Greens - what possible relevance can they have? Well, one could have said the same about the Lib Dems only weeks ago. And just as parity between Labour and Conservative has boosted the fortunes of the LibDems, perhaps so hung parliaments or even major political shifts such as PR, might see the Greens (or at least their ideas) gain some real power, as everyone scrabbles to forge alliances and the Greens find themselves the holders of the ideas that everyone wants to claim, having been on the right side of history. In countries like Germany the Greens have of course become a real political force, capturing 10% of parliamentary seats (vs 0% in the UK so far!).

True, there have been major inconsistencies within the party faithful, with factions resisting the very actions necessary to combat climate change, such as wind, tidal and nuclear generation, because of their potential impact on flora & fauna. But as the potential effects of climate change have become clear, the Greens seem to have come around to a relatively coherent agenda, at least on the topic of climate change, which, if you’re still with me, you’ll remember is my single-issue!

Tactical voting

So, bearing all of the above in mind, how should I vote?

I could vote Green as a general “protest” vote on the environment. I know that it won’t affect the election of my MP, but maybe if enough people vote Green then it will influence my local MP when he seeks re-election.

Or I could vote Lib-Dem. Try to shake things up, increase the influence of their more ambitious environmental policies. But the results of stirring the pot are very unpredictable - a Lib-Lab pact might form, and - who knows – maybe Peter Mandelson will become our nation’s second consecutive unelected prime-minister.

But hang on, our local rag rather depressingly ran a story a few weeks ago entitled “your vote doesn’t count”, saying that the seats around Cambridge are all so "safe" that there’s very little chance of any change. Indeed in 2005 in South Cambs, our local Conservative MP won with 46% of the vote, the next closest being the Lib Dems with only 28%.

My local MP is Andrew Lansley, Conservative. A nice-enough chap, I’ve even seen him in action locally on issues I care about, and his home page has a new lead story on it about how he thinks Cambridge should be Britain’s first “eco city”. But (and forgive me a little cynicism here!) it the kind of wonderful story which no-one could possibly disagree with - because there’s just no downside. It reminds me of the voting system in California which allows you not only to vote for particular candidates, but also to vote for particular policies. And of course the way that policies are described has a massive effect on the results: unsurprisingly policies were always described in terms like “vote for increasing education” rather than “vote for increasing taxes”.

Digging deeper into Lansley’s site, he does support the local council’s Cambridge Climate Change Strategy for climate change mitigation, based on the Nottingham Declaration on Climate change - but then so does everyone else!

The past being a good guide to the future, let’s look at his track-record on the excellent Publicwhip site. This allows me to see how my MP has voted on all votes on a particular topic. So if I look up the topic “Stop Climate Change”, I see that he has an impressive 97% agreement with votes on this subject.


So how am I going to vote? A radical green protest, a Lib-Dem stirring of the pot, a Labour vote to deliver on existing green policies, or a safe Conservative pat on the back? As Francis Urquhart said, “I couldn’t possibly comment”. But I can tell you one thing: as I sit down to watch them slug it out on TV tonight, I’ll be enjoying (and participating) on the excellent Slapometer site!