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UK political parties accused of ‘weak leadership’ on environment

Report by seven leading charities claims all three parties have failed to take decisive stance on environmental policy

Labour’s Ed Miliband has strong green credentials, but is he really engaged in the debate? Pic: RWE npower renewables

By Sophie Yeo

All three leading political parties in the UK have failed to demonstrate strong environmental leadership, a new report claims.

While the Coalition Government made early commitments to be the “greenest government ever” and moved quickly to back a strong carbon budget, it has failed to live up to its early promise says the study.

Chancellor George Osborne and Secretary of State for Environment Owen Paterson are accused of blocking efforts to address climate change.

Labour, the current Opposition party, receives plaudits for its attempts to move towards a low carbon economy in its policy pledges, but stands accused of failing to embed a strong environmental ethos into the overall narrative of its “One Nation Labour”.

The report, a collaborative work between seven leading charities, including WWF, RSPB, Greenpeace, Green Alliance and Friends of the Earth, plots the successes and failures of the environmental policy and leadership of the three leading UK parties in Westminster.

It finds that while some individual ministers across every party have adopted progressive positions, the overarching approach of each party towards the environment has been lacking in commitment and consistency.

Key decisions

The political polarisation around fracking has dominated UK headlines over recent months.

Conservative support for the technology has led many to conclude that the party are ‘anti-environment’, but the report suggests this masks more subtle positions ministers and opposition politicians take.

David Cameron, for instance, is praised in the report for backing a strong fourth carbon budget.

But he is criticised for not establishing a coherent voice on the environment within the party, with Osborne and Paterson proving an obstacle to the creation of a low carbon economy.

Another decisive moment has been the attempt to introduce a 2030 decarbonisation target for the electricity sector.

Labour’s backing of this is applauded in the report as evidence of a progressive approach by the party.

But the Lib Dem decision to whip the party to vote against the policy is deemed a “considerable misjudgement” by Alastair Harper, head of politics at Green Alliance, an environmental think tank which worked on the report.

“These are the kind of issues that show we understand the role of the environment in the way that our country prospers or flounders, and I think that has really shown that understanding the natural environment has been a weakness across all three parties,” says Harper.

He adds: “Plus, we’ve only had limited progress on the importance of climate change. But having said that, let’s not undermine the few key decisions that have gone the right way.”

Environmental crises

The report, says Harper, highlights the different challenges that each party faces in bringing the environment to the centre of its agenda.

“Every political party right now has the ability to be strong on the environment, but they’re not taking up that offer, and there are three different stories for the three different parties on why that is.

“Labour has the choice between promoting an alternative to government that is interesting, new and people-based with the environment at its core – it can offer business as usual.

“The Liberal Democrats facing an odd crisis in many different ways, whether it’s the lobbying bill or climate change. They’re finding it hard to prioritize right now in government, and they’re going to face the problem where a lot of people wonder what the party is about.

“For the Conservatives I think it’s something we’ve known about for a long time: it’s the story of the transition from David Cameron saying that the environment is a route to prosperity, to allowing his Chancellor to say it is a barrier to growth.

“That transition’s a real tragedy for what the party’s capable of and what it means for the country.”

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