As the Lib Dem conference opens this week, it marks nearly a year since the publication in October 2006 of the Stern Report into the climate crisis. With the Lib Dems having long led the field on environmental policies, one has to ask why they are languishing in the polls with the issue dominating the media agenda as it has done over the past year?
With Labour continuing business as usual with proposals to massively increase airport expansion and road building and the Tories issuing two completely contradictory policy papers, with the likelihood being a fudged compromise, surely now is the time for the Liberal Democrats to make political hay? They have produced a good policy paper on how to reduce carbon emissions by 2050, but instead of launching a campaign to promote them, they want to waste enormous political energy over the next few years tackling a pointless referendum on Europe.
The key question to be asked is therefore why they, like the other parties, are not responding with the urgency Stern required. There are two main reasons. The first is their failure to address the corrupting influence that political lobbying has on the internal dynamics of the party. While I was a member I found that no matter how successful ordinary party members were in getting environmental policies adopted democratically, unless these policies fitted in with the agenda of the leadership then they were never acted upon. Under Charles Kennedy, the background of many key decision-makers in the leadership was from the corporate mining, oil, political lobbying and tax haven industries. Likewise when it came to deciding on what to campaign for in the general election the priorities were set by focus group polling rather than what the party believed in. Thus tragically the environment fell by the wayside every time and valuable political opportunities were missed.
The influence wielded on the party leadership by professional political lobbyists, many of whom also sat on the party's national policy and conference committees, made it even more difficult for challenging eco-policies to be adopted. The party conference tried to free the party of this perversion of the political system, by adopting a policy that Liberal Democrats could not be parliamentarians, while also receiving payment as political lobbyists. However, the leadership refused to implement the democratically adopted policy.
The second reason why the Liberal Democrats are failing to provide the leadership required on climate change is because following their embarrassment over the Kennedy debacle they chose a caretaker leader, not noted for publicly campaigning on the climate crisis prior to being elected as leader. No matter how good their policies, there is not much hope that Ming Campbell is going to provide the charismatic leadership needed to inspire the change in the political landscape required to push through the legislative eco-revolution necessary.
It requires radical action if the Lib Dems are to fulfil the role the country requires of them. Campbell needs to be replaced with someone who has a track record on leading effectively on climate change issues, such as Norman Baker. Second, they need to clear all the political lobbyists out of their corridors of power. Third, they need to set their campaigning agenda on what they believe is the issue of highest priority to them and not some focus group.
Having abandoned the political limbo they are currently in under Campbell, they also need to establish independence from the big business leaders who fund them and who pay for the political lobbyists, and instead search out the political levers that will tackle the reduction of our carbon emissions. The media and business community are the key available drivers that will speed up change. Business and newspapers rightly want to make profits. Those profits are made from the sale and promotion of goods and services, and so if our consumer demands shift to buying only eco-responsible goods and services, then business will respond to this driver far faster than government. If the Liberal Democrats go out and build alliances with consumer groups, charities, the media and business, they could help build a coalition that could make Britain's response to the climate change challenge a truly inspiring one.
Many people feel that no matter who they vote for, the political lobbyists and big-business remain in government. The Liberal Democrats this week could start persuading us that this could change. Goodness knows the planet, and not just Britain, now desperately needs this to be so.
The writer was Deputy Chair of the Liberal Democrats from 2002-5. He is now not a member of any political party.
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