Looking ahead in 2008

Sian Berry looks ahead to a busy year including the possibility of running for London mayor alongsid

2008 is going to be another eventful year for green and civil liberties campaigners.

In January we’re expecting announcements on two major campaigns I’m working on. Transport for London will soon release the results of their consultation on new Congestion Charge bands for high and low emission vehicles. By the looks of a recent opinion poll, which will also inform TfL’s decision, charging gas-guzzlers more remains popular amongst a big majority of Londoners (not surprising when nearly half of us in London don’t even own a car).

Later this month, we’ll also hear the government’s decision on who will be running the next census in 2011. I’ve blogged here before about our campaign to prevent arms manufacturing and intelligence gathering giant Lockheed Martin from getting the contract and undermining public confidence in the census. With recent government carelessness raising security concerns among the public about personal data, a decision in favour of Lockheed is looking increasingly self-defeating, as do plans to impose ID cards on us all.

Radio 4’s iPM programme picked up on the census issue a couple of weeks ago, and their interview with the Office of National Statistics showed they are taking the concerns we have raised into account and seeking to prevent the Patriot Act from sending all our details to the US intelligence agencies. The Census Alert petition is nudging into the top 150 of more than 8,000 on the Downing Street website, which isn’t bad but still maddeningly far behind the ‘Make Jeremy Clarkson Prime Minister’ petition. Perhaps Jeremy should join me in running for Mayor – even I’ll admit he makes more sense than Boris Johnson.

And at least Transport for London and the ONS seem to be taking the concept of public consultation seriously, unlike the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. According to the Independent, ‘within days’ new nuclear power stations will get the go-ahead from BERR following the government’s re-run ‘consultation’ on the issue.

This second exercise in coaxing a positive reaction out of hand-picked members of the public has been even less convincing than the first, which was thrown out by the High Court last February after a legal challenge by Greenpeace. The situation hasn’t fazed Secretary of State John Hutton. The Indy quotes sources in his department who are oddly proud of the underwhelming fact that, “dozens of individuals and organisations have contributed to the consultation.” Not sure that will impress the judge when the decision is challenged again by Greenpeace. They and other green organisations pulled out of the second process after being ignored and sidelined and are signalling their intention to take the matter back to court.

Later in 2008, the Climate Change Bill will continue its path through Parliament. With science telling us loud and clear that we must set emissions targets that will keep warming below two degrees, we will be watching closely to make sure the government commits to real action at last. Personally, I’ll also be keeping an eye out for the policies that will enable 7,000 new offshore wind turbines to be built by 2020. This intention was announced in a grand speech by John Hutton (him again) a month ago, but the details of how this will be achieved are thin, if not non-existent. Given that German-style feed-in tariffs, guaranteeing higher prices for clean energy, are by far the most efficient way of funding new renewables, we might just see the government’s perverse commitment to the comparatively useless Renewables Obligation dropped.

Aside from big projects, carbon savings in our daily lives will need to be stepped up this year too. Unfortunately, as outlined in an Observer article last week, polling organisations report worrying signs that the efforts of the other parties to make greener lives appear difficult and expensive may be paying off, with ‘green fatigue’ threatening to set in. People are reluctant to pay green taxes and change their lifestyles mainly because they don’t see the issue being taken seriously by business or government. “There's cynicism because on the one hand we're being told [the problem] is very serious and on the other hand we're building runways, mining Alaskan oil; there's a lot going on that appears to be heading in the opposite direction,” says Phil Downing of MORI.

Keeping the public behind green policies will therefore be a major challenge this year. Since last January, when I blogged about a new high for the environment in MORI’s ongoing ‘most important issues’ poll at 19%, the proportion of people bringing up environmental concerns with MORI’s researchers has dropped back to a much more modest 10% - still way higher than pre-2006 levels but now heading in the wrong direction.

It’s hardly a surprise people lost enthusiasm during 2007 when they saw so little of it from their political leaders. It couldn’t be more obvious that Gordon Brown is looking for an excuse to drop green issues from his agenda: climate change doesn’t even appear on his ‘big issues’ webpage. The Tories also gave the game away last year when their green policy document was repudiated with the ink still wet as soon as an election looked imminent. And, despite their good intentions, the Lib Dems’ mantra of ‘more green taxes’ is surely doing more harm than good to the public’s perception of green issues.

No, it looks like it will be up to us real Greens to make the case that action on climate change can be good for the pockets of ordinary people, not just for our consciences.

Refreshingly, some political previews of 2008 have given airtime to the concept of peak oil, and the fact that high oil and gas prices will become a permanent fixture this year and beyond. In this context, the policies we have planned for London – free insulation for homes, improved public transport with lower fares, more local food, more small and green businesses not complete reliance on the volatile financial sector – start to look like pure common sense, not just for green reasons, but for economic ones too.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Theresa May's Brexit gamble

The Prime Minister is betting that the economic hit from putting border control first will be delayed and go unnoticed. 

Britain’s European referendum was about immigration. That doesn’t mean the country was divided on it. Had the question been a Yes/No proposition on whether or not immigration was a good thing, it would have between a 78 to 22 per cent rout for Brexit.  As it was, what separated those who opted for a Remain vote over those who backed a Leave one was not whether or not you thought that immigration to Britain should be lowered. Remain did, however, 88 per cent of the vote from the pro-immigration majority.

The real dividing line was between people who thought that bringing down immigration would come at a cost that they were unwilling to pay, and people who thought that it could be done without cost, or, at least, without a cost that they would have to pay. Remain voters, on the whole, accepted both that there would be an economic consequence to reducing immigration generally and they’d pay for it personally, while Leave voters tended only to accept that there was a cost to be paid for it in general.

That leaves politicians in a bind, electorally speaking. There undoubtedly is a majority to be found at the ballot box for reducing immigration and there is an immediate electoral dividend to be reaped from pursuing a Brexit deal that puts border control above everything else.

But as every poll, every election and the entire history of human behaviour shows, the difficulty is that this particular coalition is single use only. It’s very similar to the majority that David Cameron and George Osborne won to cut £12bn out of the welfare bill. People backed it at the ballot box but revolted at the prospect of cuts to tax credits, one of the few ways that the cuts could possibly be achieved. In the end, the cuts were abandoned and George Osborne’s hopes of securing the Conservative leadership were, if not permanently derailed, at least severely delayed.

The nightmare scenario for Theresa May is that the majority for border control dissolves as quickly on impact with reality as the planned cuts to tax credits did.  That’s also the dream for the Liberal Democrats and Greens, who, due to Labour’s embrace of the Conservative approach of abandoning single market membership, are well-placed to benefit if everything comes unravelled.

Who’s right? In both cases, the gamble is clear. There will be a heavy economic price to be paid through leaving the single market. The question is whether that price will come in one big shock or be paid out over a number of years. If the effect of leaving the single market is an immediate fall in people’s standard of living, job losses and negative equity, then Theresa May will find herself in jeopardy. But if the effect is longer-term, and the consequences of Britain’s single market exit are only made clear when in 2030, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has to abandon promises made to pensioners at a time when the pound was worth more than the Euro, then May will be able to reap the electoral dividend of getting Britain’s borders under control.

But there’s a more pessimistic future than either of these. The worst-case scenario isn’t that we all become poorer and the freedom of future governments to do what they want is sharply reduced by its weaker financial consequences. It’s that the economic hit is immediate, noticeable, but that the blame centres not on the incumbent government, but on immigrants and minorities.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.