Why there'll be no U-turn from Clegg on green taxes

The Deputy PM vowed in his conference speech that the Lib Dems "will keep this government green" - and he meant it.

ConservativeHome thinks the Lib Dems are going to cave in to the Prime Minister after his rash policy-on-the-hoof announcement at PMQs yesterday – and start taking the green costs out of energy bills.

To quote the Tory blogger Mark Wallace, "they [the Lib Dems] know their position as the people preventing energy bills from being cut will not be tenable for long."

I think Mr Wallace is wrong.

Firstly, he forgets that this isn’t 2010 or even 2011. We’ve now crossed the rubicon and the differentiation strategy, so long promised, is in full swing. Hence the reversal on secret courts, clarification on Free Schools, the lists of Tory 'initiatives' we’ve stopped (the 'racist vans' campaign being the latest). That process is going to accelerate and the chance to expose the paucity of thinking from the Tories on energy is too good to miss. When David Cameron encouraged everyone to hug a husky, I had no idea he was actually outlining his whole energy policy.

Secondly, 75% of folk don’t blame green taxes for their energy bills. I suspect the 25% of people who do already vote Tory or have fled to UKIP. This doesn’t seem like much of a Lib Dem vote winner, so the politics don’t work. And thirdly, its a bad idea anyway. Around half the money raised in green energy taxes goes on schemes to help those in fuel poverty to minimise waste. I’d have said that making the poorest in society choose between heating or eating was a rather more "untenable policy position".

But that’s not really why the Lib Dems won’t be rolling over to get the Prime Minister out of a hole. It’s because just 36 days ago, Lib Dem conference was told:

"And if there’s one area where we’ve had to put our foot down more than any other, have a guess. Yep, the environment.

"It’s an endless battle; we’ve had to fight tooth and nail; it was the same just this week with the decision to introduce a small levy to help Britain radically cut down on plastic bags.

"They wanted to scrap Natural England, hold back green energy. They even wanted geography teachers to stop teaching children about how we can tackle climate change. No, no and no – the Liberal Democrats will keep this government green."

Nick Clegg’s words. No U-turning from there.

Mr Cameron, it might be time to pull on an extra hoodie. It’s the only energy policy you’ve got left.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Nick Clegg speaks at the UN General Assembly on 27 September 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.