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David Cameron yesterday described the need to make drastic cuts as “critical” and “urgent”. He said that his predcessors in government had “thought the good times would go on forever”, and that not we must face up to the fact that “we have been living beyond our means”. Profligacy and waste “is the legacy our generation threatens to leave the next.” The current situation is “unsustainable”. Now is the time to “face the music” and stand up to the “most urgent issue facing Britain today”.
Cameron was, of course, talking about cuts to public spending. But wouldn’t it be nice if he used the same language, the same gravitas and urgency to talk about need to cut carbon emissions, in order to address the far more urgent, far more dangerous and far more unjust problem of climate change?
We’re often told that politicians can’t take drastic measures to tackle climate change because they are unpopular, or because it would be electoral suicide to talk about the need to make sacrifices. But this whole discussion of the deficit, and what George Osbourne has called the ‘painful’ cuts to come, shows that our political discourse can cope with talk of unpopular sacrifices. So why, if our Prime Minister can make a grave and serious speech about the deficit, can’t he do the same with climate change? If he thinks people can cope with hearing that there will be painful cuts to public services, why does he think that they’ll baulk at the idea of painful cuts to their carbon budget?
At nef, we don’t believe that tackling climate change means sacrificing everything we hold dear. In fact, we’re adamant that the Great Transition to a sustainable economy could result in us living happier, more meaningful lives. But we’d be foolish to say that such a transition would be easy. It won’t be. It’ll be the greatest challenge we’ve ever faced. And yet no politician can be honest about it. None of them are talking as frankly about the need to cut climate emissions as they are about the need to cut spending. Something is seriously awry when we make a huge fuss over the deficit, while the climate on which our economic and social stability depends is getting ever nearer to meltdown.
David Cameron defends the first-past-the-post system as he claims that it allows for voters to throw out a government (interview, April 22). However, our current electoral system denies this choice to the majority of voters. Voters can only instigate a change in government by returning a new MP and thereby influencing the balance of power in Westminster.
Yet more than 60 per cent of seats are so safe that it is all but impossible for them to change hands. Only voters in marginal seats can exert their full democratic power and all the main political parties know this. Politicians therefore spend their time crafting policies and soundbites for the swing voters in “key marginals”. Meanwhile, the rest of us are left wondering what happened to the idea of “one person, one vote”. As the two-party system breaks down, growing numbers of electors grasp how the current system robs them of their democratic rights by serving only the vested interests of career politicians, suppressing the plurality of political viewpoints and breeding disengagement.
We must create a fairer and more representative way of electing our future governments.
Nic Marks, nef (the new economics foundation)
Professor Joni Lovenduski, Birkbeck College
Dr Ricardo Blaug, University of Leeds
Ken Ritchie, Chief Executive, Electoral Reform Society
Pam Giddy, Director, Power 2010
Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg, Director, Democratic Audit
Stuart Weir, Associate Director, Democratic Audit
Peter Facey, Director, Unlock Democracy
Anthony Barnett, Founder, openDemocracy
Gavin Hayes, General Secretary, Compass
Jonathan Bartley, Co-Director, Ekklesia
Will Straw, editor, Left Foot Forward
Sunny Hundal, editor, Liberal Conspiracy
It does exist after all. Apparently it has been broken for a while and now requires enlargement. Delivering the 2009 Hugo Young lecture at the Guardian, David Cameron stated that he wanted a “big society”, in place of Labour’s “big state”. He believes that the “growth of the state has promoted not social solidarity, but selfishness and individualism”. The alternative is to “help families, individuals, charities and communities come together to solve problems”.
Cameron’s calls for cuts in the scale of government are obviously pandering towards the fiscal conservative wing of his party. To some extent he continues the tradition of earlier conservatism, defined by Thatcher, in which the state was blamed for the moral degradation of society. The state fosters a dependency culture, discharges people from their responsibilities, and displaces families as the proper purveyor of moral values.
Cameron’s true volte face is in coming up with new victims for the state’s malice. Cameron blames government for worsening many of the themes that have traditionally been the concern of the left: the gap between the rich and the poor and material deprivation. The large size of the state, he claims, is “inhibiting, not advancing, the progressive aims of reducing poverty, fighting inequality, and increasing general wellbeing”.
This appears to be a canny political move. Issues such as poverty and particularly inequality would traditionally be far from the conservative agenda. Cameron believes that by naming big government the culprit, he can mobilise conservative support even for traditionally lefty topics. He can move into Labour’s territory without losing his party’s base, as long as a smaller state is presented as the solution. So far his political gambit seems successful.
In Cameron’s view, society consists of individuals, families and communities. Government is external to society and engaged in a zero-sum game with it: The expansion of the state can only be to the detriment of society.
Third sector organizations and social enterprise are put forward as the vehicle for delivering on social goals. Cameron believes these institutions to be almost like an extension of communities, accountable to their will and able to engage them in “self-improvement, mutuality and responsibility”.
The premise that third sector organizations would be representative of community is often false. Many charities that have been tasked with delivering public services have grown so large they are as unresponsive to the needs of their clients as state departments but devoid of any formal accountability. With a large size they also acquire monopoly-like power over the services that they deliver, and can begin to work for an interest of their own. In that sense they have more in common with large corporations. The opening up of competitive markets in public services to third sector organisations has explicitly encouraged this development.
Conversely, the government providing things need not be opposed to citizens taking responsibility. Ideas of design such co-production can make sure that the clients have an active role in the delivery of services. The interface between government and civil society is what matters. Cameron forgets that the state is a part of society too, and that a good society requires strong public investment to maintain public goods and collective solutions. This philosophy makes no provision for preventative services, or long-term solutions of the kind that we now need. In spite of the rhetoric about outcomes, he has reverted with the Conservative obsession with the mode of delivery.
Cameron’s emphasis on decentralization and active citizenship is commendable. Who would not want people holding power and being actively engaged in shaping their lives? As means for delivering the changes in society the “progressive conservatives” are after – social mobility and reductions in poverty – they are blatantly insufficient.
To reduce inequality we must make a political topic of another forgotten part of society – the economy. All major parties today regard the economy as a sphere with its own natural laws and best left to its own devices. The role of government is merely to correct market failures and fix some of the resulting unjustness after the free reign of economic forces. The question all of the parties fail to ask is whether the economic system itself, with its gross inequalities and individualistic bent could be the root of the problem.
Labour’s measures such as the minimum wage and tax credits have obviously mitigated some of the growing disparities in the economy. The Tory promises to lift the threshold of the inheritance tax and cut unemployment benefits can only aggravate them and don’t fit well for Cameron’s newly found interest in the poor.
What is needed is a society of many parts: a fair economy, an effective state and a committed community – all of appropriate size.
There’s a lot of Green New Deal news this week, so I’ll take it in stages. Today, the fall-out from the confirmation that Heathrow Airport will get a third runway. Tomorrow, I’ll say something about this afternoon’s inauguration of President Barack Obama.
Just before the announcement on Heathrow, the newspaper comment pages were overflowing with the pros and cons of expansion. The prospect of new jobs at the airport was enough for TUC leader Brendan Barber to support the new runway. Simon Jenkins was less convinced, pointing out that there are plenty of ways to create jobs – such as by improving healthcare infrastructure – which don’t involve flattening villages. Indeed, as Greenpeace’s Joss Garman points out, we need to get our jobs from a Green New Deal, not from more airports. He asks:
Should Britain be building a sustainable economy with a green fiscal package centred on creating millions of green-collar jobs? Or do we plough on with the industries of the past irrespective of their impact on disadvantaged people all around the world?
GND author and Green Party leader Caroline Lucas had a letter in the Times on the day after the decision came, arguing that, despite the double-talk of Brown and Hoon, there is simply ‘no such thing as a “green” airport‘. Like Garman, she attacked those who used economic arguments to justify the expansion:
It’s simply laughable to say that “the jobs outweigh the climate danger”. First, climate change will wreak havoc on the world’s economy. Second, the greening of our economy will require us to create huge numbers of jobs across many sectors, not least transport. Hence the need for a Green New Deal. It really is time to ditch the false ideology of environment versus economics.
The trouble is that what passes for ‘economics’ under this government is a mixture of vain hope and voodoo. As nef‘s Policy Director Andrew Simms explained to the Guardian,
You are talking about a highly carbon-intensive piece of infrastructure that might be finished at exactly the moment when global oil production is collapsing and its price is rocketing. The government’s case is based on fantasy economics.
We need to wake up to the fact that the expansion isn’t about jobs for ordinary people. It’s about big business getting it’s way, regardless of how the rest of us are affected. And, yes, I realise that any argument about corporate influence over politicians sounds trite to the point of being a cliché, but the reason it’s repeated so often is because it’s largely true. The news that there is a ‘revolving door’ between Downing Street, Whitehall and airport operator BAA, is shocking, infuriating, but hardly surprising.
What is surprising is the silver lining to this sordid collusion between BAA and New Labour: the Conservatives are green again! With impeccable timing, the Tories announced their plans for a green revolution just as our Heathrow rage had reached its zenith. Their plans? A £1 billion “super-grid” of high voltage direct current power cables, which will save enormous amounts of energy compared with today’s alternating current cables. They’re also promising grants of £6,500 per household to help people invest in insulation and energy efficiency measures. Good old George Monbiot, who first suggested many of these ideas in his book Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning, can hardly believe that they are finally being taken seriously, let alone by the Conservatives. And as Brown and Darling continue to mess around with more taxpayer-funded bank bail-outs, it is Cameron who seems more clued up about how a Green New Deal might actually work:
The stuff in [our proposal paper] will help employ people and bring jobs. We have got to do things that are both good for us now and good for the future.
If Cameron can convince us that he will make good on these promises, then he might catch a rising wave of enthusiasm for green economic recovery. Witness the following articles, all of which mention nef or the Green New Deal:
- Please, No 10, can we have a green policy? – Lord Chris Smith of the Environment Agency pleads Downing Street for a Green New Deal in the Sunday Times.
- Overnight, the US is going green – but we’re stuck in a different age – Geoffrey Lean wonders where our Green New Deal is in the Independent on Sunday.
- How can Labour still fear to act for a fairer, greener land? – Jenni Russell laments New Labour’s failure on economic policy in yesterday’s Guardian.
- Green light for a boom in jobs – a nice piece in the Sunday Times, featuring nef‘s Policy Director, Andrew Simms.