Green agenda of conference season

A couple of years ago, the political conference circuit had about as much relevance to environment correspondents as – well, I was going to say as Formula One racing, but I would imagine even that has a green agenda these days.

Anyway, suddenly climate change became a hot political topic, and we found ourselves graduating towards the annual seaside shindigs.

And so, after three weeks of shuttling between Brighton, Bournemouth and Blackpool, what can I tell you about the parties’ relative stances on the environment?

Well, firstly, I feel like I’ve been in some sort of satanic airport lounge for the last three weeks.

Party conferences are a bit like freshers’ week at university.

Everyone knows there are a few things they definitely want to do – the leaders’ speech, perhaps a fringe group on a subject particularly close to their heart – but quite a lot of time is spent shuffling about, looking for something interesting and hanging around until the bar opens.

‘Playing catch-up’

Firstly, to Brighton and the Lib Dems.

Their party activists point out that for years they were putting green issues at the top of their agenda, when for the other main parties they were marginal at best.

But, privately, some of the leadership admit they have allowed Labour and the Conservatives to claim much green ground, and now they are playing catch-up on a subject that was once theirs alone.

“I’m quite proud of what we’ve achieved” says the party’s environment spokesman, Chris Huhne.
They have come up with proposals to reduce income tax, and instead penalise people for activity that creates the greenhouse gases scientists say are causing climate change.

Green groups have welcomed this, but feel it is too little, too late – and that the “Ming” issue has overshadowed the policy.

Next, to Bournemouth – perhaps not the obvious venue for the Labour Party, but they did seem to be enjoying themselves immensely.

“You got the feeling that they felt the same as the Tories,” said one green campaigner. “That Gordon Brown would be useless and the Conservatives would win the next election. They can’t believe they’re ahead in the polls.”

Indeed, behind almost every door, there appeared to be a grinning Cabinet minister, desperate to share with you how well it was all going. It all got rather alarming in the end.

Green troubles

It was not plain sailing for some, though.

The chief executive of one NGO had to hire a car to get down to conference – his diary meant he could not take the train.

Guilty enough at having to drive at all, he arrived at the hire car place with his children (as obviously, Dad driving was something of an event) to find the beaming salesman greeting him with goods news: he had been upgraded – to a jeep.

Children by this time helpless with laughter, the poor bemused salesman found himself in the middle of frantic negotiations, with the green warrior eventually leaving with an uncleaned – but small engined – car, and credentials intact.
Gordon Brown has never been perceived by the green community as the friendliest face on the political block – an impression enforced by tales from meetings with civil servants from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that always ended with the words: “It’s a great idea, but the Treasury will never allow it.”

There was certainly no green clunking fist to change the environment lobby’s mind – but one significant thing did make it into the leader’s speech.

That was the acknowledgement that scientists say we have to aim for much a greater reduction in carbon dioxide emissions – up to 80% by 2050 – than is currently suggested in the draft Climate Change Bill.

In the long term, this could make a big difference to energy, transport and housing policy.

Finally, the long trek north to Blackpool and the Tories.

“It’s all been spatchcocked together” one senior political commentator told me. “They were poleaxed by events over the summer, and they realise they have to fight back.”

Pass problems

The fightback did not start well. Problems with passes meant the director of Friends of the Earth, Tony Juniper, did not even have a pass and missed his own fringe meeting.

He was told it would help if he still had his Labour pass with him, as it would show he had been security cleared.

I started joking that this may be a sign of the leadership distancing itself from environmental matters, but stopped halfway as he looked over at me.

On to the chairman’s media drinks at the Imperial Hotel, the party’s conference HQ.

Lots and lots of media – not much else to do on a Sunday evening – including rafts of political correspondents and editors, hoping to pick up inner circle titbits for Monday. But little sign of the shadow cabinet.

The chairman herself turned up 40 minutes late, and of Messers Cameron, Osborne, Hague, Davis, Letwin, Coulson, etc, there was no sign.

The mood turned mutinous.

“Why exactly am I here?”, asked one correspondent.
“Certainly not for the wine,” another added.

Yet another muttered: “The smell of fear.”

The Quality of Life Review was duly reviewed. There have been announcements on decentralised energy, and a commitment from George Osborne not to tax supermarket parking – not what the review said, in fact.

They wanted to give councils the right to level the playing field for high street shops by making supermarkets charge the same as for city centre parking. The money would be used for better public transport.

The authors of the report said they were relaxed about this not getting into the manifesto.

But there are two big issues which the green lobby – including the new green faction within the Tory party – are looking out for, which will not be part of the announcements here. Those are nuclear energy, and airport expansion.

If the Tory party come out supporting both, there are several high profile green advocates who say they will walk away from project Cameron.

Finally, an object lesson on how politics works.

At the Tories’ media reception, we journalists had a lot of time to talk to each other.

One media mover and shaker said to me: “We’ve got to big Cameron up this week, and try and cut Labour’s lead in the opinion polls.

“If it’s close, Brown might decide not to call an election – and after three weeks away, I really need to get home instead of hitting the election trail.”

I think he was joking.

By Sarah Mukherjee


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