Where next? The Results of the British 2015 General Election and Environmental Policy

A four part series, analysing the next steps following the UK’s 2015 General Election.

Matt Hope argued in his post for this blog that 2015 ‘is set to be a significant year in the world’s struggle to address climate change’ and the first of the key events Hope anticipated, the UK general election, has now taken place. One month on from the unpredicted results, this series will profile how the events of the 5th May have affected the six major parties and how the UK’s environmental policy will be shaped as a result, starting with a profile of the party in power, the Conservatives.

After a 66% turnout, the Conservative party won a majority of 36.9%, giving them a 12 seat majority and a Tory government for the first time in eighteen years. Boris Johnson the Tory mayor of London, and seen by many as a future leader of the party, claimed that this new Conservative Government would be the ‘greenest ever’. If this pledge seems familiar, the Tory leader David Cameron promised that his 2010 government would be the ‘greenest government ever’ before later backtracking and reportedly wishing to cut out the ‘green crap’. So how will the Conservative government of 2015 respond?

Former Climate Change Secretary Greg Barker has said that the ‘PM (is) showing real green leadership’ already in his new cabinet appointments.  Amber Rudd has been appointed secretary of state for energy and climate with Liz Truss remaining as secretary of environment, food and rural affairs.

With many commentators alleging that previous Tory hostility to the post of secretary of energy and climate change was due to the Liberal Democrat minister who occupied it and not the role itself, there is a possibility that real progress could be made on Rudd’s watch. She is a believer in climate change and worked previously in the department with ‘her appointment meeting with broad approval from green business and campaigners’. She wanted to attend Lima 2014 UN COP on Climate Change (but was prevented by a Commons vote) and will attend the Paris Conference, stating that the signing of a successful agreement one of her priorities. The Tories have also stated that they will keep to the UK Climate Change Act.

Rudd told Hastings Observer that “my ambition in my new role is quite simple: to keep the lights on and carbon emissions down, whilst saving consumers money on their energy bills.” Whilst this commitment to lowering carbon emissions is promising, the means by which this is to be achieved is open to question. Cameron committed the party to a policy of phasing out coal and Rudd spoke of the need to ‘unleash a solar revolution’ but environment secretary Liz Truss has spoken against solar panels being used on arable land. Furthermore Rudd has also claimed in an interview with the Sunday Times that the ‘Tory government would kick-start a shale gas revolution’. Subsidies for onshore wind farms will also be cut and new measures introduced to require community approval for these farms. Environmental campaigners also point to the potential repeal of the fox hunting ban and the continuation of badger culls as reasons to be cautious.

These debates take place in the shadow of the two main priorities of the Tory government – the question of EU membership and the implementation of £12 billion of spending cuts. Rudd will certainly go to Paris but it is uncertain whether the UK will be part of the EU when she arrives and how this will influence the negotiations. Agreements on carbon emissions, pollutants and air quality would also be affected. And with £12 billion to be saved, the Department of Energy and Climate Change is earmarked for severe cuts and the money for the environment, food and rural affairs brief may also be reduced.

Overall whether or not this government manages to be the ‘greenest ever’ may depend less on intention and more on circumstance. But the cuts to wind farm subsidies, support for fracking and airport expansion suggest that the ‘green crap’ may not be a priority when the budget restrictions bite.

 

The second part of a series examining the consequences of the UK general election for environmental policy examines the new contenders. Though the Conservatives and Labour won the most votes, the SNP had the greatest gain in seats and UKIP had the greatest increase in vote share. What does the success of these parties mean for environmental policy in the UK?

 

Scottish National Party

The SNP only stood in Scotland but gained over 1,450,000 votes and won an additional 50 seats, taking their total to 56. They now hold all but 3 of the parliamentary constituencies in Scotland and control the Scottish government.

The party is committed to ‘a greener Scotland’ and have implemented progressive environmental policy. The SNP-controlled Scottish Government passed the Climate Change (Scotland) Act (with influence from Scottish Greens) which commits them to a minimum 42% cut in emissions by 2020 . The SNP describes the Act as ‘the most ambitious in the industrialised world’ and their election manifesto argued that ‘we will use our influence at Westminster to ensure the UK matches and supports Scotland’s ambitious commitments to carbon reduction and that we play a positive role in the UN Climate Change conference in Paris’ (http://votesnp.com/docs/manifesto.pdf: pg 17). And their stunning electoral success means they have a great deal of influence to use.

But which issues will they, as party leader Nicola Sturgeon has promised ‘bring their strength to bear’ on the Tory government? Pre-election the party promised to ‘seek to maximise support for offshore wind’ (http://votesnp.com/docs/manifesto.pdf: page 17) which matches Conservative aims. Amber Rudd’s commitment to lowering carbon emissions also suggests common ground, as does the desire of both parties to positively contribute to the Paris negotiations.

But these points of agreement are overshadowed by fundamental differences. The SNP supports both on- and off-shore wind farms and their manifesto promised to ‘press for onshore wind to continue to receive support’ (http://votesnp.com/docs/manifesto.pdf: page 17) in direct opposition to Tory policy. The issue of on-shore wind farm subsidies came to a head in the early days of the new government, with Sturgeon wishing for a veto over the withdrawal of subsidies. The SNP also imposed a moratorium on fracking in Scotland in January and it is hard to see them supporting ‘the shale gas revolution’ in England.

Furthermore the first meeting between the SNP and Conservative leaders was dominated by the issue of budget cuts, with the SNP utterly opposing the austerity programme that the Tory party believes necessary. The issues of lowering carbon emissions, fracking and support for renewable energy may be over-looked in the larger debate over cuts, limiting the SNP’s ability and desire to influence environmental policy.

United Kingdom Independence Party

The extent to which UKIP ‘won’ the general election is unclear. On one hand the party won over 3,800,000 votes, gaining a 9.5% increase in the vote share the largest increase of any party. However they secured one MP and party leader Nigel Farage was unable to win the seat of South Thanet.  In accordance with his promise to stand down as leader if he failed to be elected, Farage resigned, but was soon reinstated and continues to lead the party, despite his return to leadership receiving public criticism from supporters.

UKIP’s manifesto promised to abolish the department of energy and climate change and the party utterly oppose the UK Climate Change Act and green taxes in general (http://issuu.com/ukip/docs/theukipmanifesto2015?e=16718137/12380620: pg 39). Their commitment to leaving the EU would also undermine European environmental agreements. UKIP also rejects subsidies for wind and solar power, in favour of fracking and developing the British coal industry (http://issuu.com/ukip/docs/theukipmanifesto2015?e=16718137/12380620: pg 39). There’s clear overlap between this policy and the Tory line on shale gas and there is no doubt that UKIP will continue to call loudly for spending cuts to fall on renewable subsides and the requirements of the Climate Change Act.

The SNP and UKIP policy on the environment is in direct opposition and flanks the Tory policy – the Conservative support for off-shore wind, the Climate Change Act and the Paris negotiations is opposed by UKIP and supported by the SNP, while their decision to cut on-shore wind subsides and rhetoric on shale will be welcomed by UKIP and blocked by the SNP. The new contenders will prove decisive – but in which direction?

 

The third part of the series examining the effects of the UK 2015 election on environmental politics will look at the parties that are rebuilding after heavy defeat in May. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats suffered unpredicted severe losses, with the Labour vote in Scotland collapsing in favour of the SNP and the Liberal Democrats losing 15.2% of their vote share (BBC). Key figures from each party, such as the Liberal Democrats Danny Alexander and Vince Cable and Labour’s Ed Balls also lost their seats, making the task of rebuilding even harder. In response both party leaders stepped down, triggering leadership contests that are ongoing.

Labour

Though Labour only lost 26 seats overall and won 1.5% increase in their share of the vote the election is seen as a disaster for the party. Consequently Labour are now facing a leadership contest in the party as a whole, as well contests for deputy leader and for leader of the Scottish Labour party.

At the time of writing both Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna have withdrawn from the main leadership contest, with Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Jeremy Corbyn, Mary Creagh and Liz Kendall still in the running.  Whoever wins the contest will seek to reshape the party’s identity and this may include rejecting previous environmental policies, such as developing climate change adaption plans.

But where do the leadership candidates stand on the issue of climate change and the environment? Tellingly, environmental issues haven’t feature in the debates between the candidates, and wasn’t a category in Saturday’s Fabian Society hustings. What is known is that Andy Burnham has called for a monitorium on fracking and previously raised concerns regarding the impact of climate change on human health ; Liz Kendall has included climate change in her list of the problems facing Britain and the world; Jeremy Corbyn classes the environment, particularly cutting emissions and promoting green transport, as a ‘priority’ and as shadow international development secretary Mary Creagh frequently spoke of the importance of sustainable development and tackling climate change. However it is harder to see where Yvette Cooper stands on these issues.

 

Liberal Democrats

Though Labour’s election defeat wasn’t predicted by the pre-vote polls, the Liberal Democrats defeat was certain. From 2010 onwards local and council elections saw the party punished for their role in the coalition, though the scale of the election disaster was unexpected. After losing 49 seats the Liberal Democrats are down to just 8 MPs and while party leader Nick Clegg retained his seat, he stood down as leader, triggering a leadership contest that won’t be decided until 16th July.

Whoever wins will have to rebuild the party and redefine what it stands for after the compromise politics of the collation period. Pre-election the Liberal Democrats emphasised their green credentials and the promised to introduce five environmental bills, covering plans for a zero carbon energy economy, targets for biodiversity and resource quality and the promotion of green transport. Tim Farron and Norman Lamb are both running for leader and it remains to be seen if they will retain these commitments. However Farron has opposed fracking and spoken out about the need to act on climate change, arguing earlier this year that ‘climate change must be the pressing issue for liberals’ and that the party offered a ‘green liberal voice’, suggesting that he would seek to develop these policies.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats therefore face the challenge of rebranding and rebuilding with the choice of new leader central to this process. Environmental policy is just one of the issues to be decided but given the rhetoric of some of the candidates and both parties previous response to these issues, a commitment to renewable energy, lowering carbon emissions and a deal in Paris from both parties is likely, especially if linked to environmental justice for all. And if the Tories push ahead with support for fracking, local resistance will make opposition to this policy prudent. But, however Labour and the Liberal Democrats rebuild, they need to do so quickly before the SNP and the Greens steal a march (and the headlines) as the parties of the opposition and environmental action.

 

The final part of this series examines how the Green Party fared in the election and offers an overall conclusion regarding the future of environmental policy in the UK.

Green Party

The Green Party had their most successful election ever. Increasing their membership to over 55,000 and winning the battle to be included in the televised debates, they stood in 93% of seats, winning over 1,150,000 votes and increasing their share of the vote by 2.8%. And crucially Caroline Lucas was re-elected MP for Brighton and Hove, with an increased majority.

Yet the party failed to gain any further MPs.  Does this suggest that the appeal is Lucas herself rather than the larger party? Or is it instead the result of the larger electoral system or the failure of the party to communicate its message?

Party leader Natalie Bennett faced the difficult task of maintaining the core green message whilst at the same time moving beyond the perception of the Greens as a single-issue party. As a result ‘Scientists and campaigners have rounded on the Green Party by accusing it of turning its back on its main mission by largely ignoring the crucial issue of climate change in the run-up to the general election’ and Caroline Lucas summed up the party’s dilemma as ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. The Greens are undoubtedly in a stronger position than they were pre-election. The ‘green surge’ and Lucas’ re-election mean that they have a platform from which to influence decisions on renewable energy and it is expected that they will play a key role in opposing fracking and supporting the preparations for Paris. But maintaining this momentum and ensuring that environmental policy is at the core of the party’s message without dominating the public perception of the party will be challenging.

Conclusion

 

So though the results may be in and the new government under way, questions remain.

The British political system as a whole has come under scrutiny, from the make-up of the Union, to the legitimacy of the first past the post system to the means used to poll the electorate. No opinion poll conducted before the election predicted the outcome that resulted, raising questions about the methods used and the use of such data. The disparity between votes gained and seats won has also been raised – Nigel Farage for example questioned how his party could win nearly four million seats and receive only one MP and the gulf between the role that the SNP should play in the British parliament when no English voter can vote for their policies has also been questioned. How environmental policy that affects all can be developed and implemented under these constrictions (and how what the electorate will really think about these policies can be established) isn’t clear.

With regard to the policy itself, the Conservative appointment of Amber Rudd as secretary for energy and climate change and her stated aim to reduce carbon emissions and help secure a deal in Paris suggests that the Conservatives are responding to the challenge of climate change. But whether this will hold in the face of budgets cut and an EU referendum is debatable. The immediate reduction of onshore wind farms subsidies and the continued commitment to shale gas suggests tensions, already visible, with a confident SNP committed to opposing fracking, pushing for strict carbon pledges and supporting renewable energy.

How Labour and the Liberal Democrats will rebuild is still uncertain. Much depends on who each party chooses as leader and to what extent they will chose to break with past policy and move their party to the centre or align to the left. The pre-election commitment to decarbonising British energy may hold, but support for subsidies and fracking may not and again the issue of EU membership and budget cuts may predominate.

Andrew Simms asked ‘where is climate change in the UK’s general election?’ and environmental issues certainly weren’t prominent in the election debates. However climate change and environmental challenges will become increasingly important and will feature strongly in the future policy of all parties, whether they wish it or not.

Ashley Dodsworth, University of Leicester

*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and are not designed to reflect the position of the PSA Specialist Group on Environmental Politics.  The Group encourages thoughtful and respectful reflection on the content in the comments section of the post.*