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Bookmark and Share David Boyle is a nef fellow, a writer and the editor of nef‘s newspaper, Radical Economics.

“I pondered all these things,” wrote William Morris in A Dream of John Ball, “and how men in fight and lose the battle and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat. And when it comes, turns out not to be what they meant and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”

Morris was right, and he seems to have hit on a profound truth about politics.  Change is deeply paradoxical, and – although the grammar of progress eludes most politicians – we achieve what we achieve sideways, like crabs.

When we win we are also at the moment of disappointment; when we lose then paradoxically things happen as a result.  It’s confusing, but that is how it works.

This is one of those paradoxical moments, because we are about to see the Conservatives support electoral reform in the Commons, if not outright PR.  The political shift is not yet complete, and it certainly won’t be embraced by all 306, but it has begun.

A quick race through political history shows that this isn’t actually very unusual.  It was Conservatives who extended the franchise in 1867, who reformed factories and extended free education.  It was the Tories who made Ireland independent.

Not because they really had much taste for it, but because of something else.  When Conservatives realise that radical reform is inevitable, then – in the end – they prefer to do it themselves.

In the case of PR, the alternative is that Labour will do it, when they next claw their way to power.  Then we risk Labour-style PR, with list systems that leave the party machines in control.

It is the historic destiny of the Conservative Party to introduce PR a different way, setting Britain on the path towards proportional representation in a way that retains that link between MPs and their constituencies.  The debate is about Alternative Vote now, but that is now so far from the Irish system of single transferable vote – giving the maximum amount of choice to the voters, and keeping van all-important constituency link.

That will mean bigger, multi-member constituencies.  But then, that is what Britain used to have.  It is a potential Conservative compromise.

What we are all learning this month is that strong, decisive and effective government isn’t quite what Conservatives thought it was.  In the end, giving absolute power to a minority isn’t either stable or decisive.

When we face the kind of problems that now face Britain – loss of confidence in the markets, the urgent need to cut the deficit – then minority power doesn’t work.  It isn’t stable and it can’t unite the nation.  The only thing that will work, and give stability, is government that is backed by a majority.  That applies now, but it will apply in the future too.

History suggests that this is the moment when enough Conservatives realise that, and grasp the opportunity to give power back to the voters.  In the heat of the moment, they agreed to back AV, but the logic suggests that many of them will go further.

Watch this space. They will wriggle, but in the end they will back PR.

Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Assistant and blogmaster.

We live in bittersweet times. On the one hand, we face multiple challenges, crises and threats, from climate change, economic instability, growing social inequalities and resource depletion. On the other, we’ve got a real chance for change in the way we think about economics, the things we value and what really matters to us as societies and communities. It’s with this bewildering and complex dynamic in mind that I bring you Friday’s over-simplistic Good News, Bad News.

This week, the good news is:

  • Carbon emissions have decreased by 3% from 2008 levels, because of the recession. This is the sharpest fall in emissions for 30 years, according to the International Energy Association.
  • E.on will not be building a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth, at least for now. While pressure from climate campaigners may have had a impact, the company cited the recession as being the main reason for shelving the plans.
  • Income inequality is now coming under the political radar of the Conservative Party. The painstakingly thorough work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett of the Equality Trust has shown that countries with less inequality are generally stronger, safer and happier places to live.  nef held fringe events on inequality, featuring Dr. Wilkinson, at all three party conferences.

The bad news:

  • Peak oil is still likely to hit us within the next ten years, despite recent discoveries of new fields in the Gulf of Mexico, says a new report from the UK Energy Research Centre.
  • British people say they wouldn’t give up their flights to help the climate. A study conducted by Loughborough University found that fewer than 20% of people said they were trying to reduce the number of flights they took.
  • The Conservative Party are putting corporate lobbyists up for parliamentary seats. An investigation by the Times newspaper found that over a fifth of the Conservative Party prospective parliamentary candidates most likely to gain seats in the next election are or have been involved in corporate lobbying or public relations.

Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

David Cameron

Could the Conservatives be the party to ditch economic growth as a policy and oversee the change our climate needs?

There are only seven more annual political conference seasons to go before the world enters a new, far more dangerous phase of unpredictable global warming, based on the risk categories of climate scientists.

That means we should already be able to see genuine solutions emerging in the debates and speeches echoing around the nation’s conference capitals of Brighton, Bournemouth and Manchester. It also means that whoever is successfully elected to form the next government in 2010, they will almost certainly be in power during the period when the fate of the atmosphere is settled.

Except, perhaps, during wartime, history rarely offers up such a definitive performance indicator for a government. But here, for better or worse, the words, “it happened on your watch” will be carved, probably in coal, on their headstone.

New research from the Hadley Centre, part of the government’s own Met Office, set the scene for the political challenge. It warns that we should now plan for the possibility of a 4C temperature rise by 2060. This is far beyond the maximum 2C rise considered a maximum safe threshold before the environmental dominoes start to fall.

On 25 September, the Friday before the Labour party conference began, the world went into ecological debt for the year, beginning to consume more resources and produce more waste than the planet could handle.

The challenge couldn’t be clearer. Bad accounting, poor risk assessment and profligate behaviour nearly destroyed the global financial system. It threatens to do the same to a climate conducive to civilisation. It’s not reform that the next government must oversee, but paradigm shift.

Yet in the last few weeks, the siren voices for a return to business as usual have been getting louder. We need bonuses back, says the City, although they never really went away, to get and keep the best talent. But that was hardly a good strategy last time, when the “best talent” on bonuses wrought chaos. The Confederation of British Industry says recovery depends on cutting back regulation. But an absence of appropriate regulation is the slippery slope down which the economy and environment slide. Others call for another wave of no-strings bailouts for the fossil fuel-intensive car industry. These voices, effectively, are telling the survivors of a sinking ship to leave their lifeboats and climb back on board.

As the Conservative party takes energy from Labour’s disarray and disheartenment is there any sign that they might do the seemingly unthinkable, and consider radical economic redesign to prevent what happened to the banking system from happening to the climate system?

On one hand, there is a disturbing and furtive creep of old vested interests. Big money, big business, old school connections looking to return to their comfort zone after more than a decade of feeling culturally uncomfortable with a Labour government. Regressive tax, more binge consumerism and dirty and weakly regulated industry are all poised for a potentially easy ride. Yet the Conservatives are also on a journey to distance themselves from their own past. What started as an unavoidable rebranding exercise can take on a life of its own.

David Cameron is on record as saying that well-being is as, if not more, important than growth in an economy. An increasing number of voices from Nobel economists down are pointing out the ultimate incompatibility of endless rich country economic growth with the preservation of a habitable planet. What’s interesting for the Conservatives is that ditching growth as the single, overarching economic policy obsession could well revive ways of living that they find politically appealing.

A world in which there is much less passive consumption of goods and services is a world in which we do many more things for ourselves and each other. It’s a world not of absolute but much greater self-sufficiency, at the national, local and even individual level. In other words, it’s a world in which we have much more control over our own fate. A revival of real local democracy beckons in which we are more responsible locally for our own food, energy and the reciprocal delivery of services. With 86 months to go, that doesn’t sound too bad to a public very jaded about UK politics – it may even sound infinitely preferable.

86 months and counting


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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.