A Green Response to Gordon’s Speech

Posted on September 29, 2009 at 9:15 pm,

Anybody who follows British politics or media knows that it’s party conference season. This week, it’s the turn of Labour, who’ve gathered in Brighton Conference Centre – right in the middle of a seat which will almost certainly turn Green in the next election. The Labour Party is doing its best to defy the rather clever billboards we’ve put up in the city:

Labour is Old News in Brighton

At that conference today, Gordon Brown made a very good speech. If the Prime Minister could get his presentation this good all the time, and the Labour Party follows suit, then Labour has a fighting chance of doing a John Major and winning the next election, albeit by a slim margin. However, I thought I’d pick out a few bits of the speech that particularly caught my attention. The negative tone of much of what follows doesn’t mean that there wasn’t much in the way of good stuff in the speech. It merely means that there’s a lot more to say about the stuff that I have concerns about.

The section that most caught my attention was when he was talking about the economy and the environment. Both are key issues, and both are fundamentally interwoven. He made some very good noises on the economy, condemning the market fundamentalism that drives Tory economic policy, and talking about preventing “great British businesses go[ing] to the wall”. The problem is that it rather marks him out as a hypocrite. Although Labour have been less Thatcherite than the Tories were, free-market principles rather than human beings have still been the driving force behind New Labour economics. And as for preventing great British businesses from going to the wall, we’ve seen both iconically British names (Woolworths) and strategically important industries (wind turbine manufacture at the Vestas plant in the Isle of Wight) abandoned by the government.

Gordon also talked about how “our future economy must be a green economy”. He talked about how the UK was supposedly a world leader in wind power, green cars, clean coal, and carbon capture, and talked about creating a quarter of a million new green jobs. Clearly he likes the sound of the Green Party’s Green New Deal – which would deliver jobs whilst greening the economy. However, the reality of Labour’s position doesn’t add up. Whilst British researchers have made important contributions to the development of many green technologies, we are hardly a world leader. We now only have one – very small – factory producing wind turbine blades in a country with immense potential for generating wind energy, for example. His talk of low carbon zones suggests a lack of ambition. Surely the point of greening the economy is to make the whole of the UK a low carbon zone.

Gordon’s environmental credentials were further undermined by the fact that he attacked the Tories for not being committed to nuclear power. Yes, nuclear power creates fewer carbon emissions than coal, oil, or gas (though it is not, as is often thought, carbon-neutral to run a nuclear power station). But it creates a whole raft of other environmental problems, as well as security ones. There are less costly and more effective alternatives to nuclear power to help bridge the gap to a future powered by renewables, but Gordon clearly doesn’t support them.

On civil liberties, there were some good noises. The PM no longer intends to collect extra information on us for biometric passports, and won’t make ID cards compulsory. We can but hope that the need the big three parties feel for budget cuts leads him to shut down the whole pointless (unless you want to become a Big Brother State) and expensive scheme. Unfortunately, this is unlikely, as he believes that the ID card for foreign nationals is now working. He didn’t expand on what the work in question was, or how it’s changed things from when they had to have passports (which have the same information on them, anyway…)

He also talked about the need to end nuclear proliferation. We can hope and pray that he decides to scrap our nuclear weapons, rather than just shove the same number of nukes onto three, rather than four, submarines.

He also said some encouraging things about electoral reform. The right to be able to recall MPs is welcome in principle, though the rules about when it can be done may set the bar too high. A move to Alternative Vote is another positive move in that direction, though it isn’t a great step up from first past the post in terms of giving representation for smaller parties in proportion to their nationwide support. To be truly proportional, a constituency-based system needs to include top-up seats of some description. The move to an elected house of lords is also a step in the right direction. Though I will, at times, miss the existence of peers who are not bound by party politics an elected house of lords – if elected under a proportional system – will help provide a good counter-balance to government and ensure that the voices of, say, the 1 million people inclined to vote Green in the Euro Elections will actually be represented at Westminster.

Of course, even if Labour win the next election, they may not actually implement many of the policies outlined in this speech. But at least Gordon’s proved that they can still talk the talk.

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