How should Greens deal with rising petrol prices?
Petrol prices are going up. This hits people in the pocket – hard. At a time when most people haven’t had a pay rise in years, this is particularly tough. But, traditionally, greenies have argued in favour of more expensive fuel – right? We need to put fuel prices up in order to wean our society of oil? Right? Well, I’m not convinced, but we’ll come to that later.
I wrote back in January about how the coming fuel price rises pose a real threat of splitting the anti-cuts movement. For big G Greens, this is a huge threat. In May, we have elections for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, and local councils across England. Both the Scottish and Welsh campaigns are focussing on our opposition to cuts and privitisation. In the 2007 elections, the perception that we were primarily the “Green Taxes Party” – pushed by the right but never properly countered by us – did us serious damage. I have never seen a study of its impacts on those elections, but I spent most of a month knocking on doors all across Scotland, and it was clearly a major problem people had with the party.
As with all elections, and as with all votes, it wasn’t the policy itself. It was the values that the policy seemed to enshrine. Greens are often percieved as a party who are not on the side of ordinary people. We are seen as a party that wants to force people to do things for their own good – things they don’t particularly want to do. Green taxes became emblematic of that. This problem mostly disappeared with the credit crunch, and as Greens learnt to stop talking about green taxes. But, with a decision on the fuel price escalator due just a month before the polls, it looks like it might rear its ugly head again, just at the most dangerous time for Green candidates.
And how should Greens face that problem?
Well, let’s look at party policy. The Green Party (Scottish and English/Welsh) is not in favour of taxing fuel to solve climate change. We used to be. But a few years ago, we realised that this wouldn’t work. And so we changed our policy. Instead, we have 2 other policies: domestic tradable carbon quotas – carbon credit cards – and, crucially, the Green New Deal.
Why did we change our policy? Well, after lengthy discussion, workshops with experts, etc, we came to the conclusion that taxing carbon wouldn’t work. From 1990 to 2000, the price of a litre of unleaded petrol went up from 40.2p to 76.9p – it nearly doubled. Carbon emissions from transport went up by about 10% (pdf) over the same period. Because travel (and heating our homes) are things we value, we are willing to stop spending money on other things in order to be able to spend it on increasingly expensive fuel. This ‘inelasticity’ in our demand for oil makes a tax a pretty inefficient way to help us use less of the stuff. We need to invest in the infrastructure to enable people to get this transport and their warm homes without relying heavily on oil.
And fuel taxes are problematic for other reasons: most pollution comes from the rich. In order to change their behavior, you’d have to hit the poor so hard as to ruin their lives. And then you’d have to raise prices some more. Essentially, rising fuel prices is the ultimate market solution – you put up the price of one commodity, and hope that the market will re-organise itself around that. This doesn’t work. The reason that fuel price rises are so unpopular is that they ruin people’s lives. Without serious investments in the infrastructure required to ensure that people don’t rely on oil, putting up prices is just locking people into further poverty with no viable get out. People won’t stop using petrol, they will just have to cut back on the other stuff they buy to make up for the money they are losing. The market won’t come and rescue the poorest people. It won’t magically lay on buses to the poorest area or insulate our houses or make our streets safe for cyclists. It never has.
Tradeable quotas would be better as they’d give everyone, rich and poor, an equal pollution permit. No one could be priced out. But ultimately, quotas are neither a solution on their own, nor at all viable given the handful of seats Greens can reasonably expect to gain in this election. And so what position should we be taking in the face of rising fuel prices? The same one that we’ve been pushing for the last 3 years now: a Green New Deal. We need massive infrastructure investment to cut people’s fuel bills – so that, together, as a country, we can end our addiction to the black stuff that is going to carry on getting more and more expensive, no matter what we do.
This means fantastic bus and train services. This means insulating everyone’s house for free. This means making sure it’s safe for your kids to cycle to school; and it means doing all of this now. Are we in favour of raising fuel prices at a time when everyone’s income is crashing through the floor? That isn’t our party policy, it wouldn’t work, and I don’t see why we should sacrifice our chances of winning seats in Scotland, Wales and across the country to defend it.
It’s vision and values, rather than individual policies, that win elections. But those visions and values emerge from voters joining the dots between policies. The future of the Green Party lies in voters recognising that we are the party standing with them against the onslaught of corporate neo-liberalism coming this way. And if fuel prices continue to go up, these elections may well be defined as much by these prices as they will be by cuts. The party can choose to paint a portrait of ourselves as distant nannies who only listen to centrist Westminster think tanks and so think we know what’s best, and we can send our candidates like lambs to the slaughter to defend high prices our parties’ policies don’t support. Or we can use every second we have to make it clear that we have the same day to day stuggles as those we hope will vote for us – that a green society is one that is better for all of us: we can oppose cuts and wage freezes and privitisation and articulate a vision for a society that isn’t dependent on more and more expensive oil. The future of Greens in Scotland, Wales and England may well depend on our success in doing the latter.