Voter power can make the difference on climate change

James Humphreys
2 May 2005

There are times when politics seems to fail us. From the middle east to Africa, war, famine, disease and disaster haunt us, yet they could so often be prevented or mitigated if only we had the collective will.

So it is with climate change. Like a coming storm, we may not know the exact hour when it will strike or just how much damage it will do. But there is no doubt about the risk – or the cure. Yet once more the political system in the United Kingdom and beyond seems unable to deal with the threat. Tony Blair acknowledges the scale of the crisis but will do nothing to slow economic growth or upset voters who are wedded to cheap flights. Nor are the other main parties advocating the kind of measures that could avert this disaster. The planet will not suffer through ignorance, it seems, but through selfishness and neglect.

Yet people are not powerless. One of the many quirks of Britain’s electoral system is that “protest” votes can have a disproportionate impact on mainstream politics. In 1989 the Green Party won 15% of the vote in the European Parliamentary elections and the impact was dramatic, with the traditional parties suddenly striving to adopt Green policies as a way to win back disaffected voters. The Conservative government pushed through a mass of new legislation, including tougher car emission limits, higher water and air quality standards, and more protection for precious habitats. They were even prepared to take politically unpopular decisions, such as allowing water rates to rise sharply to pay for better sewage treatment. (Continue reading)

openDemocracy asked representatives of Britain’s leading political parties to explain why climate change had been a nearly invisible issue in the 2005 general election campaign. We received these comments from the governing Labour Party and the opposition Conservatives and Liberal Democrats:

Margaret Beckett (Labour):

The Labour party sees climate change as a priority, both domestically and internationally. We set out in our manifesto our goals and plans for the next few years, and have made the issue a top priority for the United Kingdom’s 2005 presidencies of the G8 and European Union. Our rural manifesto, which I launched with the prime minister on 23 April, also set out our plans to address the impact of climate change.

Labour is not committed to the Contraction and Convergence (C&C;) or to any other proposal for the design and structure of a global agreement on climate change to build on the Kyoto Protocol. Our particular priority is to create and secure international political agreement on the level of cuts in emissions needed. It could actually impede that process to commit prematurely to one option which, though presently fashionable, has not been discussed by the international community and could well be controversial. It may well be that some such proposal or elements like it will in the end form the basis of a new approach. But we are not at that stage of negotiations.

Tim Yeo (Conservatives) :

“The Conservative Party thinks that climate change is one of the most serious challenges facing the planet and that the UK should be a leader in addressing the issue. I am disappointed that it has not been a larger issue in this election, but several things we have said have not been reported – we have published a major statement on action on the environment, and I myself have made several speeches. I’ve seen opinion polls suggesting that the electorate do not put climate change high on their list of importance, but I think that this is partly a question of information. I think it is true to say that it’s not a vote-changer.

“After the election of a Conservative government, our twin aims would be to concentrate on increasing energy efficiency and to focus on the rising emissions from both industry and private dwellings. If people know more about the issue and the impact of their behaviour they will make good choices, and of course some of the new energy sources can be very good for business.

“There is a lot to discuss in the Contraction and Convergence (C&C;) proposal. It is a challenging concept aimed at fair allocation of responsibility for emissions. But a Conservative government would first seek to pressure our ally the United States, in whatever way it could, to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol. After that we would be interested in talking about C&C.;”

Norman Baker (Liberal Democrats) :

“It’s very sad that climate change hasn’t been featured in the election as it should have. It’s not for lack of trying on our part. I’m afraid it’s largely the fault of the media.

“If the Lib Dems were to win the election, there would be radical changes to transport and energy efficiency. We would follow the Contraction and Convergence model. It’s the only way forward. We would also redouble efforts to ensure success with the Kyoto treaty. The most important thing is to bring on board the United States, China and India.”

This example of “protest power” is not unique. In 2004, support for the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) increased markedly and the Conservatives moved further to the right on Europe. The Ukip surge and the disconcerting re-emergence of the far-right British National Party also contributed to the Conservative leader, Michael Howard’s decision to highlight asylum and immigration in the current election campaign.

Protest votes can visibly shape the political agenda, but only if the wishes of the voters are clear. For example, the Liberal Democrats claim to have better environmental policies that Labour and the Conservatives, but a vote for Charles Kennedy does not send a clear signal to the political elite to act more swiftly on climate change because the Lib Dems simply have too complex a political identity.

The Green Party could not sustain the levels of support seen in 1989 in part because the government of the day began to adopt their policies, but also because the party lacked firm foundations. Since then it has adopted the approach that has seen the Liberal Democrats build up their presence first in local government, then in Westminster. Campaigning effort is targeted on the most fertile ground. Success in council elections gives greater credibility when challenging the sitting MP. Coming second in one election allows the party to call for tactical voting to win power next time around.

The Greens are a long way down this road. Already, the party has consolidated its position on councils in places such as Norwich, Oxford and Lancaster, and gained seats in the European Parliament and in the Greater London Assembly. In Brighton, success in local government elections boosted support for Green candidate Keith Taylor in the 2001 Westminster election to 9%, giving him a shot at becoming the UK’s first Green MP this week.

Don’t miss other articles in openDemocracy’s debate on the politics of climate change

Despite the attitudes of the main parties, then, voters have a chance to make clear that climate change is their prime political concern. The higher the Green vote, the more the traditional parties will be pushed into radical action on climate change, and also the more chance of Greens being elected now or at the next election.

The media tend to treat elections as horseraces, in which the winning post is all that counts. But politics – and voters – are more subtle. Tactical voting and protest voting give people a chance to send a personal message to whoever enters Downing Street on 6 May. If enough people send a message on climate change by voting Green, then the prospects for the storm to come will be a little brighter.

This article appears as part of openDemocracy’s online debate on the politics of climate change. The debate was developed in partnership with the British Council as part of their ZeroCarbonCity initiative - a two year global campaign to raise awareness and stimulate debate around the challenges of climate change.

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