Is the green cause advancing or falling back? “We have been the greenest government ever,” Ed Davey, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, tells The Independent on Sunday in an interview today. It is a paradoxical claim, because he prefaces it by saying that “the last Labour government was not very green”, and adds: “We need to make sure the next government is much greener.”
So, he seems to be saying, we have been a bit greener than the last lot, but not green enough. If so, we would agree with him. The IoS has been disappointed with the Conservatives’ record on the environment. We were prepared to give David Cameron the benefit of the doubt when he put a windmill on his roof and when he proclaimed his intention that the coalition would be the greenest government ever, but if Mr Davey is now able to make that qualified claim, it is despite Mr Cameron, not because of him.
The turning point was George Osborne’s “slowest ship in the convoy” speech to the Tory party conference in 2011, when he said Britain would go along with EU plans for green energy but would not be a leader. Since then we have had another paradox, that of the green surge: the doubling in support for the Green Party from an average of 3 per cent for most of this parliament to 6 per cent now. More important has been the extraordinary rise in party membership. Although the party’s records systems are rickety, it claims a combined UK membership of 54,000, more than Ukip (42,000) and the Liberal Democrats (44,000).
This surge has happened despite the frankly unimpressive record of the party’s leader, its sole MP and the one local council that it runs, Brighton, as Cole Moreton reports today. And it has apparently occurred despite – although, conceivably, it is because of – the party’s decision to emphasise policies on jobs, the living wage and public ownership, rather than the environment.
It would seem that the Green Party has, almost without meaning to, tapped into a yearning for something that is different from the “politics as usual” offered by the two biggest parties and, this time, by the Lib Dems as well. The green surge echoes the success of the SNP in Scotland despite – another paradox – its defeat in September’s referendum. And it mirrors the success of Ukip on what is usually thought of as the other side of the political spectrum.
As the election approaches, however, it is worth subjecting the policies of these insurgent parties to more scrutiny. It is worth noting that all of them are light on policy detail. The SNP’s economic prospectus for an independent Scotland has fallen into a tar pit along with the oil price. Ukip was supposed to publish its manifesto at last week’s spring conference but it was not ready. And the less said about Natalie Bennett’s housing policy “brain fade” on live radio the better.
Nick Clegg and Mr Davey are entitled to claim, in fact, that they have done more in government than ever before to push the UK along the path to low-carbon energy, which is undoubtedly the most important single goal of environmental sustainability.
Not only that, but the rise in aggressive Russian nationalism is making an energy policy that is independent of Russian gas seem a more attractive prospect, even if oil and gas prices are unexpectedly low now.
As a green newspaper, we say that the Liberal Democrats deserve some credit for keeping the low-carbon show on the road. Ed Miliband, a former Climate Change Secretary himself, is personally committed but seems to have downplayed greenery in favour of an emphasis on the cost of living. The Conservatives deserve some discredit for going back on their “vote blue, go green” promise. And the Green Party urgently needs to sort itself out.