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Our Insights 15 May 2015

Election Reflections

By Rob Cameron

Flickr image by SecretLondon123

Not many of us saw that coming did we?! I’m referring, of course, to the extraordinary outcome of last week’s UK election. As I write, David Cameron is making the finishing touches to his new government that, naturally, is claiming a mandate for its policy portfolio. Will we see the sustainability agenda figure highly in this portfolio?

This was an extraordinary election for many reasons; not least that 3.9 million people voted for UKIP – not to be glossed over, but not a topic for this piece. Of more interest here is that over a million people voted for the Green Party. Is this the beginning of a “green political revolution”? I wish it were so, but sadly I doubt it.

For some years, I have wondered whether our broad range of sustainability concerns adds up to a full political agenda. Or rather, should we be campaigning for those sustainability issues to be addressed across the political spectrum? Indeed, some people turned this question into a criticism of the Greens: that they were more “campaigning group” than “party.”

To be clear, I am all for the Green Party and would be thrilled to have Caroline Lucas and others like her in government. But if Labour can fall so far short because of its failure to address people’s personal aspirations, what hope is there that the Greens can do so?

Labour and Conservative Parties were aligned around cuts to address the deficit and both offered the public an “austerity” agenda – albeit, Labour’s approach to cuts was more modest. In doing this, they staked out a broad swathe of the centre ground as austerity territory. Meanwhile, the Greens offered a much more radical anti-austerity agenda.. And as a result, I’m certain that the Greens attracted some voters dissatisfied with Labour’s centrist model.

But whether we agree with the narrative behind the continuing austerity drive (and, as Paul Krugman writes, the rest of the world does not), there seems to be some important questions at the heart of this issue for those of us seeking a progressive approach to sustainability: how did austerity become a narrative which the two main parties could both more or less adopt? And could our “ity” – ‘sustainability’ -similarly become the backdrop against which policy decisions are taken?

Let’s be honest: the agenda of those of us working in this area, has always been more at home to the left of centre. But maybe it is time to ask ourselves how to find ways to build a cross-political consensus. Vital issues such as climate change, water use, resource scarcity, for example, won’t wait for political climate change.

Politics is nothing if not tribal. And it is near impossible to belong to more than one tribe. My concern here is, notwithstanding my own left of centre perspective, whether the politics of sustainability may become wholly owned by the tribe further to the left and therefore, by definition, exclude other tribes.

Many of our sustainability challenges have been exacerbated (if not caused) by an ultra-conservative political agenda, coupled with the neo-liberal economics of unfettered markets focused on short-term financial gain and the externalization of environmental costs. Actually, I think the case is very strong. It is natural to present a political worldview that sits in alternative to this, but I fear that progress on sustainability cannot wait for a profound shift to the left such as we have seen in some parts of Latin America. We have to find ways to coalesce all the parties in a common narrative. The UK Political Leaders’ Pledge, brokered by Green Alliance, was a great example of what might be possible. What a pity that when a coalition seemed likely, none of the leaders chose to use it as an example of progressive thinking that could bridge political divides!

A few months ago, at a conference in Istanbul, I shared a platform with a most engaging American, passionate about sustainability and the imperatives that drove him forward. He quietly confided to me that he was a longstanding Republican and that he had a mission to ‘enlighten” his fellow travellers of the right. And to be honest, I found that possibility truly thrilling.

The Green Party has shown that there is a growing appetite for green thinking in the UK. It must continue its work. And a growing green vote will surely help make progress. But we cannot pin all our sustainability hopes on its shoulders. The campaigning across the political spectrum must continue. When the voices of both the grassroots and smart businesses are loud enough then all parties will pay heed.

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