Greens are no longer a side dish

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The Independent Online
Strange as it may seem, one group of people has actually enjoyed the long, wearisome road to the election announcement. The longer John Major has dithered - and the rest of us have withered - the brighter they have become. Environmentalists have had a good phoney war.

For the first time they are being courted by the leaders of both main parties. After privately meeting heads of the main pressure group thrice since December, Tony Blair has publicly identified "care for the environment" as one of a handful of issues central to his vision of the future. Gordon Brown, when he met them in his term, said he wanted to be a "Green chancellor" (and wasn't, presumably) referring to his inexperience. Even Peter Mandelson - whose book on Blairism last year barely noticed the environment - has been dining with leading Greens. Not to be outdone, the Prime Minister announced, in a special article in the Daily Telegraph, that he was putting "Green issues at the heart of the Government's agenda". And he went out of his way to bow in the direction of Charles Secrett, the executive director of Friends of the Earth, who was excluded from the latest meeting with Blair after attacking Labour's performance on the environment.

On the day the election was announced, the Government torpedoed Nirex's plans for a nuclear dump near Sellafield. And the next day, the official Highways Agency proposed changing the route of the controversial Salisbury bypass to stop it ruining the last good view of the cathedral across the water meadows.

We will have to wait and see what difference, if any, this makes to the campaign, let alone to the next government's policies. But the Greens, who nobody wanted to know before Christmas, are delighted that it's a late election.

Mind You, given the arithmetic, it's amazing that it has taken the two biggest parties so long. (The Lib Dems have, of course, long campaigned on the environment).

Twice as many people belong to Green groups as to all the political parties put together. Opinion polls consistently show that some 90 per cent of Britons are concerned about the environment and that nearly three quarters say that pollution and other environmental damage affects their daily lives. And surveys by MORI, which measure what people actually do, rather than what they say, identify between a quarter and a third of all Britons as "environmental activists" - twice as many as a decade ago. Polls in Tory marginals show the environment to be as important as tax, twice as important as privatisation, and four times as important as the single currency in swaying votes - though so far it has been given infinitely less attention than any of these issues by either of the big parties.

Perhaps it is an omen that the first speech I have heard in this election campaign included an unusually thoughtful exploration of this gap in perceptions; but only perhaps because it was by Clare Short , the Shadow Overseas Development Minister, who - though popular with the public - is scarcely a favourite of New Labour's apparatchiks. She described a world undergoing a tectonic change "as fundamental as the shift from feudalism to capitalism", driven by globalisation and the poverty and environmental crises, while the political and chattering classes, obsessed with "the old order", ignored the quakes beneath their feet. And she told her audience (suspiciously stuffed with officials sussing out their putative new boss) that "compassion fatigue" represented popular pain at the lack of results, rather than a lack of caring, and that a campaign to solve poverty and environmental problems with specific time frames, would get an enormous public response.

It was a rare injection of vision, of the quality without which, according to the Book of Proverbs, "the people perish". As George Bush - who boasted of lacking "the vision thing" - found out, the same seems to apply to politicians.

Now a thought for Nirex which, before choosing its dump site near Sellafield, drew up a list of 12 others, all thought to be nuclear power stations and similar installations. Experts said last week that East Anglia might provide particularly promising geology. East Anglia's only nuclear power stations are at Sizewell, and a well-timed announcement that this site was now top of Nirex's list would cause panic in the local Suffolk coastal constituency and a good deal of trouble for its Tory incumbent at the polls. The embittered bunch at Nirex could probably live with that - for, as it happens, the MP is the man who has just vetoed their plans, John Selwyn Gummer.