The environment has traditionally been viewed as an issue associated with left-of-centre politicians. In this context, the Green Party and many left-leaning liberals have supported environmental taxation and the green agenda over a sustained period, and environmental issues have generally risen up the political agenda in recent years as a broad political consensus has developed about the need to tackle the environmental problems facing Britain and the world. The two bigger parties of Labour and the Conservatives have often provided lukewarm support for such ‘pro-green’ policies but are fearful of the electoral consequences of promising increased taxation on environmental issues. In the context of this debate it certainly appears to be the case that UK political parties have become more ‘green’ in recent years. It is therefore worth briefly analysing each party’s position on environmental policy, particularly since 1997 in the wake of the demands imposed by the Kyoto Treaty.
The Labour Party claim to have pursued environmentally friendly policies since coming to power in 1997, with the Blairite ‘Third Way’ agenda viewing green issues as a key part of its political territory, and Tony Blair’s incoming administration agreed to the high-profile Kyoto Treaty soon after taking office (December 1997). Such a policy position was developed during the party’s years in opposition in the 1990s when the environment was becoming a more topical and significant political issue. It is difficult to define a position for traditionalist ‘Old Labour’ on this issue, as the policy was not really on the political radar during the previous Labour government in the 1970s. However, Labour would argue that its pro-green credentials can be linked to its socialist heritage and its focus on improving the working and living conditions for ordinary people, as well as its willingness to work cooperatively with other nations on such issues.
In the wake of Kyoto, the Labour government established a ‘super-ministry’ to focus on the issue of the environment, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR). Meeting the Kyoto’s various environmental targets (e.g. more green types of energy production) have been a challenge for most national governments that signed up to them, but the UK’s Labour government was aided by the greater use of gas by privatised energy companies, greater EU regulation and a rise in oil prices that increased petrol prices and limited the growth in car usage.
As well as such high-profile international agreements as Kyoto, there have also been domestic developments in relation to this issue such as the 700-page Stern Review on the economics of climate change. This was released in 2006 by economist Nicholas Stern at the request of the Labour government a year earlier, and it is seen as being one of the most significant British reports into the effects of global warming in the context of the world economy. In acknowledging the significance of this report’s recommendations, Gordon Brown’s administration between 2007 and 2010 followed this up with a Climate Change Act (2008), which was influenced by EU targets and which generated broad cross-party support in its pledge to cut carbon emissions by 34% by 2020 and by 80% by 2050. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee has also been established to make the government more accountable in terms of meeting its targets on this particular issue. However, some critics argued that the Labour government should have instigated more of its own original targets in relation to environmental policymaking, rather than following those of the EU and the international community.
Such environmental focus developed into the UK’s participation in the high-profile Copenhagen Summit of December 2009 that sought to establish long-term reductions in carbon emissions as part of the international campaign against global warming.
There is no higher priority for me, or for this government, than forging an agreement in Copenhagen that sets the world on a path to avoiding dangerous warming.4
Gordon Brown, Monday 28th September 2009
However, in a similar vein to their main rivals for political office (the Conservatives), the Labour Party has been conscious of the electoral cost of environmental policies, particularly as such ‘green’ policies often result in extra taxation, e.g. extra petrol costs. Some academics have been critical of Labour’s caution on this issue during its time in power (1997–2010), and the political dangers of fuel taxes were evident during Tony Blair’s first Labour administration, when it faced an angry and disruptive ‘fuel protest’ in 2000, prompted by the anger of farmers and hauliers at the rising cost of petrol.
On taking office in 1997, the Labour government made a high-profile pledge to tackle the environmental implications of the growing number of car users and the ‘transport gridlock’ on many roads in the UK. This policy area was the responsibility of the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott (below left) at the DETR, and it was hoped that greater use of public transport, increased vehicle excise duties, low-emission vehicles, bicycles and car-sharing schemes (with more cycle lanes built) would complement this aspiration, as part of an integrated transport policy.
I will have failed if in five years’ time there are not… far fewer journeys by car. It's a tall order but I urge you to hold me to it.
(John Prescott, 6thJune 1997)
However, Labour’s environmental credentials were tarnished in this policy area by the fact that during its time in office over 13 years, the number of car users actually increased following concerted efforts to tackle this issue. John Prescott’s high-profile pledge to reduce the volume of car users from 1997 onwards culminated in a politically embarrassing 7% increase in road traffic by 2002. Such a rising trend in car traffic emphasised the difficulties faced by any modern government in persuading the general public to integrate environmental considerations into everyday life and to override consumer desires (particularly for large ‘fuel-guzzling’ vehicles). Labour were also accused of granting concessions to the ‘fuel lobby’ following the 2000 fuel protests, further accelerating car and petrol usage, and also failed to develop motorway tolls while building more roads and granting airport expansions. Air travel also increased during this period, adding to the perception that Labour were reluctant to emphasise its environmental agenda at the expense of the lifestyles of key voters whose support they needed to retain at election time. As a result of such developments, Labour could therefore reflect on a fairly mixed record on this issue when it lost power in 2010.