It seems like only a short time ago that I was considering the manifestos for the 2015 General Election (see “The political landscape isn’t very green …”). And it seems like a lifetime ago, such are the potential ramifications of the Brexit vote (see “What has the EU ever done for us?”). So what are the main parties saying about the environment in their manifestos this time around?
First impressions are important and, looking at the contents pages, I see that neither of the two largest parties regard the environment as sufficiently important to merit a chapter to itself. There are crumbs of comfort tucked away in the text of both: both, for example, commit to improve natural flood management and to take a lead in global action against climate change. Labour go a little further than the Tories with an explicit commitment to replace the Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which should guarantee environmental standards. Both manifestos, however, make some bizarre claims: the Tories will create a “Shale Environmental Regulator” when the best way to manage shale gas extraction (if this were to be allowed) would be to strengthen the current regulator’s powers. Labour’s plan to take utilities (including water) back into public ownership also makes little sense from an environmental perspective. Indeed, by making utility bills into a political issue, it may even become harder for regulators to argue for price rises to pay for the capital investment necessary to improve water and environmental quality. Neither manifesto addresses the important questions raised by Caroline Lucas and others (see “(In)Competent Authority?”) about who will watch the watchmen once the oversight of the European Court of Justice is removed.
What of the other parties? UKIP come straight out with a commitment to repeal the Water Framework Directive, claiming that it led to serious flooding in many parts of the country by preventing river dredging. Curiously, given that this statement is tenuous, to say the least, their next sentence promises that UKIP will promote “evidence-based environmental schemes”. Given the current state of Environment Agency finances, I hope that this claim is supported by plenty of cash, otherwise the evidence needed to promote strong environmental regulation will not be available. Or maybe that’s the point? Flick to the end of their manifesto and look at the fiscal plan: no explicit mention of the environment and only a meagre sum allocated to “provision for other policy items”. I think we can move on …
The other two national parties give the environment more prominence. The Liberal Democrats devote a whole chapter to “Keep our Country Green” and maintaining EU environmental standards is part of their case for fighting a hard Brexit. Like the Tories and Labour, they commit to encouraging natural flood management; unlike the larger parties, they put a cash sum (£2 billion) against this pledge in the body of the manifesto. Apart from this, the Lib Dems make few specific claims for how the aquatic environment will be managed; however, there is a much wider range of green measures in their manifesto than either of the two main parties can manage.
The Green Party also follow the trend for natural flood management and promise to put environmental protection at the heart of any future trade deals. However, there is less detail in this manifesto than there was in their 2015 manifesto and, in particular, only a single reference to farming. Even the most ardent EU supporters find it hard to mourn the end of the Common Agricultural Policy, and the Greens are not the only ones who realise that there is an opportunity here to build a greater emphasis on countryside stewardship into the system that replaces the CAP.
Despite this, the Green Party have the most visionary outlook of all the major political parties. Labour and the Conservatives are still wedded to GDP growth, with the environment as a subsidiary issue but the Greens have a more holistic world view that challenges traditional economics. I have just read Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics (Random House, 2017), which explores the possibility of alternative, more inclusive, healthier approaches to economic management. The Greens get this, pointing out that “consumer capitalism is the problem, not the solution.” That, however, is their greatest weakness as well as their strength: electoral success for them will depend upon those consumer capitalists being satisfied with less despite the larger parties seducing them with offers of greater prosperity.
We should probably look beyond specific references to the environment in order to divine the prospects for our water and countryside. The Brexit negotiations will be key yet the manifestos can only capture the ambition of one half of the negotiation process. What exactly does the Tory desire for a “deep and special partnership with the EU, which will allow free trade between the UK and the EU’s member states” mean? It could mean a willingness to accept EU employment and environmental standards to ensure a level-playing field for trade. But Theresa May has to keep a wary eye on the belligerent right-wing of the Tory party who will see such standards as “red tape” that should be sacrificed rather than compromise with the hateful Brussels bureaucracy.
Overall, I think that Theresa May and the Tories will bring too much ideological baggage to the negotiating table to allow a truly constructive partnership with the EU to emerge. The narrow vote in last June’s referendum would justify a “soft” Brexit, for which the other parties will be better placed to negotiate. The Lib Dems and the Greens both promise a second referendum to confirm the terms of UK’s leaving, which is a reasonable aspiration with the sole drawback that the electorate are already jaded and unlikely to have any enthusiasm to be dragged to the polling stations yet again. Overall, given the lacklustre approach to the environment from both the main parties, perhaps our best hope on June 8 is another coalition? If that includes the Green Party then maybe an awareness of the importance of sustainability and the environment will start to be embedded throughout Government policy instead of being quietly relegated to the margins.