Former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson speaks at the Conservative conference in 2013 in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.
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MPs who reject science are undermining the public interest

On climate change and other issues, parliamentarians are ignoring the evidence. 

In another blow to the reputation of Parliament, a new report provides further evidence that a handful of MPs are using their positions to promote unscientific ideas, such as homeopathy, astrology and climate change denial.

There is little that is controversial about the final conclusions of the inquiry by the House of Commons Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change into the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Among its main findings are that "[T]here is increased confidence in the IPCC projections that, with rising greenhouse gas concentrations, we will continue to see warming (and the changes to the climate associated with warming) in this century and beyond".

But tucked away in the back of the report are the minutes of a meeting that show two members of the committee had a radically different view about the scientific evidence. Peter Lilley, the Conservative MP for Hitchin and Harpenden, and Graham Stringer, the Labour MP for Blackley and Broughton, together attempted unsuccessfully to remove the sentence endorsing the IPCC's projections of future climate change. They also tried to edit out a paragraph which suggested that the temporary slowdown, or hiatus, in the rate of global warming "does not undermine the core conclusions" of the report, and that "warming is expected to continue in the coming decades".

These were last-ditch attempts by Lilley and Stringer to give the Committee's report a "sceptic" slant. They had already ensured that the Committee devoted an oral evidence session to "sceptics" who rubbished the IPCC report. The hearing would not have been out of place if it had been held on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, where Republicans regularly invite witnesses to promote climate change denial to committees in the Senate and House of Representatives.

It is perhaps not surprising that Lilley, who juggles his job as an MP with a part-time post as vice-chairman of Tethys Petroleum, continues to reject the findings of mainstream climate research. He was, after all, one of just five MPs who voted against the Bill to introduce the Climate Change Act in 2008.

A few other MPs have also publicly cast doubt on the science of climate change, including David Davies, Conservative MP for Monmouth, and, of course, Owen Paterson, who has just returned to the backbenches after being sacked last week from the post of environment secretary. Paterson has been criticised not just for ignoring the findings of climate researchers, but also for proceeding with a badger cull against the advice of leading scientists.

Stringer's climate change "scepticism" is relatively long-standing, as shown by his dissent against a previous inquiry by House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology. He argued that independent investigations into the emails hacked from the University of East Anglia in 2009 had not been rigorous enough to clear scientists at the Climatic Research Unit of misconduct.

But climate change is not the only scientific issue on which Stringer disagrees with the experts. He has also courted controversy by describing dyslexia as a "fictional malady". Stringer was joined on the science and technology committee last year by David Tredinnick, the Conservative MP for Bosworth. Tredinnick, who is also a member of the health select committee, last week told the BBC that astrology could have benefits for patients. He has created outrage in the past by championing homeopathy, and wrote to the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to call for a wider range of alternative treatments to be made available.

While these examples only apply to a handful of MPs, what is most surprising is that Paterson was elevated to a cabinet post that has traditionally required a high degree of scientific literacy, while Tredinnick, Lilley and Stringer are all currently serving on committees that are supposed to scrutinise whether the policies of government departments are evidence-based. Their senior appointments might be seen as another consequence of there being but very few MPs with scientific backgrounds. However, it should be noted that while Tredinnick has a master's degree in the humanities and Paterson read history, Lilley studied natural sciences and economics at the and Stringer graduated in chemistry.

It appears, therefore, that the unscientific views of some of these MPs have developed in Parliament despite having scientific qualifications. Whatever the reasons, their rejection of mainstream science undermines both evidence-based policy-making and the public interest.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change