Will the sleeping giant wake up in time to vote?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I have been vainly, but repeatedly, trying to fit a quarter into the office coffee machine, under the jetlagged impression that it was a 10p piece. It was a fitting end to a long week's journey from inaugural Washington to the Friends' meeting house opposite Euston Station, from the final act of an environmentally influenced election to an early bid for the green vote in our own impending poll.

In America, for the first time, the environment made a big difference. Pollster Stan Greenberg found it to be one of the most important factors in almost every Congressional race he examined. "It was an issue that elected - and, even more, one that defeated," he concluded. Eighty-five per cent of the defeated Republican incumbents owed their demise at least partly to being on green hit lists.

It all goes back to the 1994 mid-term elections, which swept the now- disgraced Newt Gingrich and his cohorts into Congressional majorities. They set out to dismantle US environmental legislation, though this project had not figured in their platform. But 83 per cent of the voters in the very election that returned them had described themselves to exit polls as "environmentalists".

Soon the public backlash struck, marking the moment when the Gingrich revolution began to stall. President Clinton - despite an indifferent record - made the environment one of his keystone issues, together with health and education. Republicans dropped their assault and started planting trees and visiting zoos in a belated attempt to look green. But for their U-turn, say senior members of the Administration, the environment would have counted for even more at the polls.

! AT THE Friends' meeting house yesterday, Robin Cook (whom I first encountered in South Yorkshire 20 years ago sharing an environmentalist platform with Arthur Scargill) and Labour's active new shadow environmental protection minister, Michael Meacher, were offering us Britain's "first truly green government". We'll see. The environment hardly figures in Labour's Road to the Manifesto and Peter Mandelson's acquaintance with greenery appears limited to the guacamole he once, supposedly, ordered in a Northern chippy.

But maybe yesterday's rally - which disinterred and put new momentum behind many of the commitments in a radical 1994 policy document - will yet start something. There is good evidence, as Cook himself once put it, that the environment is "the sleeping giant of British politics". MORI polls show it to be ahead of Europe and challenging tax as a vote winner in Conservative marginals.

! BEFORE I left Washington I had dinner with two of Al Gore's closest personal and political friends. "I suppose," I ventured, "his campaign for the Presidency begins straight after the inauguration?" They looked at me as at the naive foreigner I am: it was clearly already long underway.

Gore, says George Stephanopoulos, the newly retired top White House aide, has "already become the most powerful vice-president in history". And Clinton now appears to be giving him more space not least over environmental issues which have become one of his trademarks. (George Bush called Gore the "Ozone Bozo" in the 1992 election.) He has already announced that one of his goals for the next four years will be cleaning up toxic waste dumps and other pollution hot spots.

His friends expect his most dangerous rival for the Democratic nomination to be the former senator Bill Bradley, Rhodes scholar and erstwhile basketball star, running - though he has only just left Congress - on an anti-Washington, clean-campaign-finance ticket. The Republican candidate, they think, will be Trent Lott, Bob Dole's successor as Senate majority leader, or - wait for it - Dan Quayle.

! BUT environmentalists excited at the prospect of a green and pleasant President Gore should meet Terri Swearingen, a feisty registered nurse who has spent the past 14 years campaigning against the building of the country's largest toxic waste incinerator less than 400 yards from an elementary school in a poor Ohio neighbourhood. During the 1992 election campaign, Gore pledged - if elected - not to let the incinerator start up until investigations had taken place. Within months of the inauguration it began limited operations nevertheless.

Swearingen collected copies of Gore's environmentally correct book, Earth In The Balance, and catapulted them over the White House fence. Next day the Administration announced it was improving policing of incinerators and imposing a moratorium on new ones - steps she had herself proposed.

! BACK to a huge pile of press releases, some useful, most for the bin, a few puzzling. Mongolia, it appears, has just joined the UN's International Maritime Organisation. Wonderful, of course - but why?

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