LEADING ARTICLE: Making Blair a green populist

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The Independent Online
Question: what is the most exciting form of popular politics that as yet has no home in the heart of our political process, Westminster.

Answer: environmental protest.

At Newbury, a popular revolt could halt construction of the town's bypass. In west Wales, salvage teams and others may have been slow to react to the Sea Empress disaster, but so too were politicians, days behind the environmental activists. The Brent Spar fiasco was inflicted upon Shell without any politicians playing much of a role at all. How can it be that so much passion, energy and conviction can be devoted to issues of such profound long-term significance and yet our politicians can stay so quiet? Rarely has so little of use been said by so many about so much.

Tonight, Tony Blair sets out to make good that deficit, with his first major speech on the environment. Could he yet rise above the uninspiring mediocrity of political debate about the environment to capture the popular imagination?

The answer is yes. How? By setting out a radical, environment-friendly, tax-cutting agenda. The aim would be to cut taxes on incomes and jobs by taxing pollutants. As it stands, Labour does not have a tax strategy. It is relying on Gordon Brown's fiscal prudence and some tinkering here and there to persuade floating voters to trust it. That is fine as a defensive strategy. But if we are to believe that Mr Blair wants to command the high moral and intellectual ground, his tax policy must convey his vision for British society.

This is exactly how the Tories succeeded in setting the political agenda for the Eighties. Margaret Thatcher's belief in a society of individual enterprise and a smaller state was summed up by her commitment to low rates of personal income tax. Mrs Thatcher was not just trading in tax bands and the money in people's pockets. She was selling us a story of what sort of society we could become. That is what Mr Blair needs to do. An environmental tax policy that simultaneously cuts taxes on incomes and helps to create jobs could provide just that.

Announcing new forms of taxation is anathema to all politicians interested in winning elections: the storm over the introduction of VAT on domestic fuel bills warned of the dangers. The fear about pollution taxes are that they could damage the competitiveness of British industry and hurt those on low incomes. There are ways of addressing all these concerns. In Denmark, for example, new energy taxes have been introduced, with exemptions for heavy industrial users, so that they are not driven out of business. In the Nordic countries, domestic fuel taxes do not produce fuel poverty because homes are well enough insulated to ensure that everyone can afford to keep warm.

The key would be to ensure taxes were introduced gradually. The Government has made tentative moves towards environmental taxation, with its commitment since 1993 to raise duty on petrol by 5 per cent in real terms annually. A link has also been made between raising environmental taxes and cutting other taxes: proceeds from the landfill tax, to be introduced in September, have been earmarked to finance reduced national insurance contributions.

But there is no vision behind the Government's plans. Mr Blair has done much to impress the electorate with his sober-suited managerial approach. We are still waiting for him to inspire us.

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