A tale of two parties: Learning the environmental lessons from the 2010 coalition
It’s May 2010. Good Times by Roll Deep is charting number one, a track about keeping the party going and living your best life. But the opposite was true, bad times were coming; the Conservatives had just re-entered government with an austerity plan supported by the Lib Dems.
The 2008 financial crisis had destroyed not only the livelihoods of many in the UK, but also made politics uncertain. A hung parliament was expected, something which we’re rather more used to now. I was only 11 during the election, but I remember well the common charge levelled against Labour of overspending and ruining the economy. The Blue-Yellow pact would bring “stability” and “security”.
Huskies, failures, and Lib Dems
David Cameron had arrived in 2006, promising to “modernise” the Conservatives by focusing on “one-nation” socially liberal policies. And part of this included making the party appear much more robust on environmental issues. For example, Cameron travelled to Norwegian glaciers to talk climate change and pose with huskies. And this, at the time, was not unsubstantiated greenwashing, with cross-party support for robust responses like the 2008 Climate Change Act. When the 2010 Con-Lib Dem Coalition was formed, Cameron promised that it was going to be the “greenest government ever.”
As ever, hindsight is 20/20. Many would now agree the Cameron-Clegg coalition failed to properly begin decarbonising the UK. At the 2011 conference George Osborne complained of environmental regulation and the cost of energy bills. Certainly, a key conflict was between the Conservative ideological commitment to reduced public spending and the need for actual investment in environmental solutions.
But the Lib Dems felt they had succeeded when Chris Huhne pushed through the “Green Deal” in 2011. This policy still failed to actually decarbonise housing as was intended, despite current Lib Dems claiming that it’s equivalent to the “Green New Deal”. When Ed Davey took over as Minister things still did not improve. The conflict over fracking continued, with the government pushing to allow exploration of the fuel and in 2013 a target to decarbonise the grid was dropped from the Energy Act.
It will take years to reach a consensus about the Coalition and whether there were environmental successes, but it is clear now that they didn’t do enough to deal with climate change. An excellent analysis from the time can be found here. But even then the 2010-15 record is overshadowed by the even more environmentally damaging Cameron government from 2015.
Learning from 2010
Why does this matter? It could be easy to understand 2010 as a whole other political era. But there are important lessons to be learned from the environmental policies of Cameron-Clegg. If, as many expect we face a general election on the horizon, then the environmental record of all parties will be up to scrutiny.
We can see the Lib Dems attempting to rebrand, not only with their clear anti-brexit policy but also along environmental lines, with Davey himself running for leader. The Conservatives, particularly through the work of Michael Gove and by pushing for a 2050 Net Zero target, will likely suggest they have an excellent environmental record as well.
To me, there are two possible ways of understanding the environmentalism of the Coalition Government. The first is that it was greenwashing; the government wanted to present itself as caring about these issues but was more focused on economic criteria and its own ideological projects. The second is that there were spaces within conservativism for environmental care, but these attempts were market based and linked to the austerity ideology, ultimately failing.
To believe or not to believe?
It’s easy now to say that there was a lack of genuine care and comprehension for climate change from both Conservatives and Lib Dems in government. Certainly, those on the right of the conservative party were more focused on their project of deregulation and cutting public expenditure. The elevation of John Hayes within the government exemplifies this, as he was a notable anti-wind turbine activist. It is quite clear some MPs at the time were engaged in some form of greenwashing.
But there were a number of members of both party who genuinely believe that they had a grasp of the climate crisis and given the right program their party could deliver it. Within the Lib Dems Ed Davey is someone who genuinely believes the Lib Dem middle of the economic debate program will deliver us from the climate crisis. And not only do we have Conservative environmentalists like Zac Goldsmith, we also have figures like Michael Gove in DEFRA who seem to align themselves with a landed high-tory environmentalism.
Greenwashing, or worse?
We have a huge population who have only recently started engaging with the scope and extent of our environmental problems. They could be easily swayed to support a Lib Dem or Conservative who spin themselves as having a robust environmental record. Whether this is greenwashing or misplaced, it could undermine efforts to ensure progressive environmentalism is on government agendas.
Worse still, environmental voters, particularly those who are all or nothing for fixing the climate crisis, could end up supporting a kind of reactionary environmentalism. This is where calls for economic and social justice are not included within the measures used to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
There is a tendency on the left to assume that climate change will disrupt the global economy sufficiently to force a decision between catastrophe or progressive common resource use. “Eco-socialism or barbarism” is the usual way of expressing this. But as Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright make clear in their excellent work Climate Leviathan, there are ways to adapt to climate change’s effects which are nationalistic and continue to entrench existing social inequalities. Adaptation and mitigation to climate change could still succeed on violent and inegalitarian lines.
Is this a realistic prospect? Yes, if we look at the 2010 Coalition. The Lib Dems have bragged of the fact that they negotiated a plastic tax by accepting a benefit cut on the impoverished which was ultimately ruled illegal. The environmental gains that were made, and the decarbonisation that did occur, small as they were, came along with an austerity project that entrenched inequality and xenophobia.
Environmentalism without justice
Massive gains have been made in bringing the lack of environmental successes and the scope of these problems to the public. But without public efforts to link climate change to legacies of colonialism, economic exploitation and more, there is space for a resurgent environmental support for parties like the Conservatives and Lib Dems.
Both of whom oversaw the development of the hostile environment immigration policy, attacks on the welfare state, and the completion of privatisation of many commonly cherished resources. Those environmentalists who now consider voting Lib Dem or Conservative have to acknowledge that these MPs have shown themselves willing to attack the most vulnerable in society whilst in government. What terrifies me is who they may harm to adapt to a badly mitigated climate crisis.
The massive public engagement about environmental issues is a start not an end. There has to be sincere effort in the public eye to link surviving the climate crisis with social and economic justice, such as has been made with some “Green New Deal” proposals.
2010 shows that the language of environmentalism can be used disingenuously. But worse it shows it’s possible to believe in fixing environmental problems, whilst ignoring and making worse the social and economic injustices attached to them. This has to be challenged.