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Taxation is a necessary evil - and voters know it

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John Gummer opened his speech to the recent Tory Party conference with these words: "This is a speech which will get no coverage in the press or television news."

He was right. Nor did Michael Meacher's. Nor did Matthew Taylor's. The media are entirely impartial in their indifference.

But at least the parties themselves did actually address the environment, even if it wasn't actually covered. Aid, international development and Third World debt were banished from the conference agendas all together. As the development agencies pointed out last week, on the UN's Anti-Poverty Day, political support for this agenda seems to have collapsed within the mainstream parties. And further deep cuts in our already shrunken aid budget (now down to 0.31 per cent of GNP) would seem to be on the cards.

For the 37 member organisations of Real World (with more than 3 million members between them) this is a familiar, but still depressing, picture. Real World was launched back in February specifically to bring together organisations campaigning on environment, development, social justice and democratic reform - and to ensure that these issues are not consigned to oblivion at the next general election as has happened in previous elections.

The response from the parties has been interesting. All except the Conservatives broadly welcomed the initiative; the Tories turned up their noses, much as did Mrs Thatcher in the mid-Eighties when she denounced campaigning non-governmental organisations as part of "the enemy within".

True enough, it's not the easiest agenda for the modern Tory party to engage with. The very notion of social justice is taboo and poverty is still seen largely as the fault of the individual - or of corrupt, inefficient and over-regulated governments in the case of the Third World.

On constitutional and democratic reform, it's just "no, no, no" all the way down the line. Only on the environment have the Tories got a strong case to make - and John Gummer made it in characteristically robust style. But it wasn't only the media that didn't listen. Nor did his Cabinet colleagues; and John Major didn't even mention the environment.

But then nor did Tony Blair. While it's true that both Michael Meacher and Andrew Smith (Labour's new Shadow Transport Spokesman) acquitted themselves well at their conference (Friends of the Earth described Meacher's as the "strongest environment speech by a Labour front-bench spokesperson for more than three years), the complete silence of both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair on the economic and social implications of having to create and distribute wealth in genuinely sustainable ways was revealing.

The Liberal Democrats have not been slow to take advantage of Labour's disengagement. Paddy Ashdown's speech highlighted the degree to which the Liberal Democrats are intent on integrating environment and economic policy particularly in terms of their new commitment to energy taxes as the best way of lifting taxes off jobs and wealth. Their electoral game- plan was made pretty clear: "With the Liberal Democrats strong in the next Parliament the last government of the century will be its greenest. Without, nothing will change."

So what makes the environment and international development strong issues for the Liberal Democrats but not for Labour? It is partly the totally different way in which they read the evidence about public opinion on these issues.

Labour's strategists keep coming back to the fact that more people clearly care more about unemployment, health, education and crime than they do about the environment, let alone the Third World. So they do, but as the Liberal Democrats have realised, that doesn't stop them caring about the environment at the same time, as is powerfully demonstrated by the millions of people who join or give money to campaigning organisations in these areas.

Both Labour's conservatism and the Conservatives' apparent hostility means that Real World will have its work cut out to make a big impact during the general election. On taxation, for instance, Real World is deeply concerned at the unedifying spectacle of our two principal political parties competing to cut income tax to buy the votes of the British public, while every other issue is allowed to pale into political insignificance beside the tax gambit.

Part of Real World's broader task has to be to remind people that many of the public goods on which our lives depend (be they environmental, social or cultural) have to be paid for - through taxation - and to go on supposing that we can cut back and back on that social investment represents the politics of insanity. It's our bet that there's much broader support for this position than you would ever have guessed from the party conferences.

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