Sustainability and the The UK’s Conference Season
Each year, I analyse the UK political leaders’ conference speeches to gauge their party’s commitment to green issues. My theory is that the leaders’ speeches are a much better indicator of the priority the parties give sustainability than those of their environmental/energy spokespeople. In my analysis I have disregarded any glib statements and attacks on political rivals. Instead I try to focus on positive proposals and/or visions for a sustainable future.
So, in chronological order:
Tim Farron, Liberal Democrats
Given the beating the Lib Dems took at this year’s General Election, new leader Tim Farron had to make an impact and certainly surprised a few with his oratory (usual disclosure: I’m a Lib Dem and I know Tim quite well). While most of the green elements of the speech involved knocking the Tory Government for dismantling policies the Lib Dems put in place in the previous coalition, he put sustainability at the centre of his economic vision:
The heart of [the future] economy will be green industries: renewable energy, low-carbon transport, green finance – all areas in which Britain is already a world leader.
There are more offshore wind turbines around our coasts than everywhere else in the rest of the world put together.
These industries are making products and technologies which a decarbonised world will want to buy. They will bring jobs, exports and prosperity and at same time reduce emissions and tackle climate change.
Natalie Bennett, Green Party
As you would expect, the environment featured widely in the Green Party leader’s speech, but most of it concerned either what the Green Party was against (fracking, coal bed gasification, nuclear power) or how rubbish everybody else was at tackling green problems. In terms of policy, Bennett pushed addressing fuel poverty and a ‘small is beautiful’ vision for the economy:
The Green Party has long championed treating our homes as the critical national infrastructure that they are – a plan to lift nine out of 10 households out of fuel poverty, to create at least 100,000 jobs, and cut carbon emissions. Not bad for just one Green policy!
The Green Party has long demanded investment in public transport, not the botched, illogical HS2, but local and regional schemes that help to rebalance our economy, linked to local bus services under the controlling hand of local councils. Such a transport policy would not only tackle congestion and air pollution, but also help to cut the NHS bill for dealing with obesity and diabetes. Not bad for just one Green policy!
And we’ve long understood that the only secure, sustainable economic future is based in strong local economies, with local needs met by local suppliers, with a rich ecology of farming, manufacturing and services businesses supporting each other.
Nigel Farage, UKIP
Following a general election where they racked up millions of votes yet only won a single seat, the UKIP conference was the most combustible with public shouting matches between major figures. UKIP have never pretended to be green and the sole reference to climate and industry in Farage’s speech was “[The EU’s] climate change obsession has destroyed industry across Europe.” Moving swiftly on…
Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party
The new leader of the Labour Party was a surprise (not least to himself) – a 30 year veteran of the left. Never known as an orator, Corbyn’s ramshackle delivery was rescued by the fact that we knew he genuinely meant every word he said. However, his sole green policy proposal was a rehash of an old, recently ditched one, and didn’t come with any detail attached.
A Green New Deal investing in renewable energy and energy conservation to tackle the threat of climate change.
David Cameron, Conservative Party
The Prime Minister gave a quite extraordinary speech to his party faithful, driving his tanks not just into the centre ground, but arguably into the centre-left. However, this didn’t include what would be to me the obvious target, climate change and the green economy with the former getting an oblique reference and the latter nothing. As one pundit put it, plenty of ‘hug a hoodie’, no ‘hug a husky’.
So, from a sustainability point of view, the leaders’ speeches were rather depressing, with only Farron and Bennett having anything of substance to say and them having but 9 MPs between them. The choice between those two is the ‘small is beautiful’ idealism of the Greens and the ‘green growth’ vision of the Lib Dems.