The worst thing about the coalition? The wasted opportunities

The chance to build a different kind of economy after the crash was lost. For real change, voters should look to the Greens.

As the saying goes, as one door closes, a window opens. Sadly the coalition’s approach to the feng shui of government has been to slam shut important policy windows, bolt the doors and throw away the key. This is a government of wasted opportunity.

2008-2010 represented a period of dramatic change – not just in the financial markets but in the arena of economic debate. As the housing boom turned to bust, questions were asked of the fable that unshackled capitalism, big business and endless growth should be the raison d’etre of government policy.

Paul Gilding’s book The Great Disruption: How the climate crisis will transform the global economy used a Boserupian framework to argue that, unless large (though ultimately positive) changes are made to our world economy, 2008 will only be a taste of things to come. Even David Cameron, leader of a party which, as its name suggests, is not generally enthusiastic about change, promised a great deal. He was snapped hugging hoodies and huskies, he added a lick of green (wash) to the Conservative emblem and he talked up the importance of people’s happiness as a guiding principle of government.

The latter of these points built upon a decade of important work in social science interrogating the assumed wisdom that happiness is inexorably linked to economic growth. Richard Layard’s book Happiness laid some of the foundations since built upon by the likes of the new economics foundation (nef). Layard showed how unequal societies driven by the need to earn more money and accumulate more goods are not only destructive to the earth but also to people’s happiness. Happier societies are those built on community values, family-life and a declaration of stalemate in the war to keep up with the Joneses.

Against this background, 2010 was supposed to be an election of great change. The public were prepared for it. We all bought into the idea that there was going to be painful but necessary change as easily as we have bought into the world of cats pulling grumpy faces. Sadly, the government let us down. Change, yes. Painful, undoubtedly. Positive, no. George Osborne has gone back to fuelling a housing bubble as if 2008 never happened. They’ve taken a slash and burn approach to benefits. Not only is action on climate change now off the menu but we’ve regressed to a point where denying its very existence is an okay thing to say in a mainstream broadsheet newspaper. Even Labour’s not-really-that-left-wing announcements at conference have been easily portrayed as the ghosts of Communist past. The coalition has divided and conquered.

What’s become apparent is that if you want real change, you have to vote for it – rather than expecting it from established parties who promise much but are ultimately encased by the trappings of their traditional backers, funders, and thinkers.

That’s why I’m a Green Party supporter: because they’re a party that believes in, and is committed to, change. They don’t think it unreasonable to give everyone a bigger slice of the pie when currently the top 1% possess the same wealth as 60% of the UK population combined. They don’t think it strange to suggest that everyone should earn at least the living wage – one that they can build a life around. They believe in the importance of community and a rejection of the old idiom that we live to work. They don’t think that privatisation has been a resounding success – not least for the railways. And, they believe we can tackle climate change and do so in a way that builds a better future around renewable energy and a sustainable and creative use of resources.

If you’re not satisfied with your current government provider and you’re thinking of switching, I’d certainly urge you to investigate the positive vision offered by the Greens.

Matt Hawkins is co-media office of the London Green Party

David Cameron and Nick Clegg visit Wandsworth Day Nursery on March 19, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Matt Hawkins is co-media officer of the London Green Party

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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