With less than two years remaining until the next general election, Britain’s Conservative Party has surged to an historic 22-point opinion-poll lead over the incumbent Labour Party. This turnabout has followed an energetic campaign by the Tory leader, David Cameron, to wrench the party out of its ideological comfort zone and overhaul its public image. Cameron has indeed handled many issues deftly. However, his initial attempt to spark a bidding war over climate alarmism backfired enormously, and it should serve as a warning to other Western political parties that are trying to burnish their green credentials.
From the moment he was elected Conservative leader in 2005, Cameron was eager to woo the upper-class voters who had shunned the party in the post-Thatcher era. He chose to make environmental policy the focus of his stylistic revolution, and he commissioned Zac Goldsmith (a fellow Eton graduate and director of The Ecologist magazine) to chair a “Quality of Life” policy group. Goldsmith, an heir to a billion-dollar fortune and well-known green activist, claimed “an invitation to be radical.”
Goldsmith’s policy group soon unleashed a fury of impractical ideas. It proposed placing prohibitive taxes on landfill and big cars, halting investment in air and road infrastructure, taxing parking at out-of-town malls, and even mandating that car advertisements include emissions statistics. The Conservative MP Tim Yeo, who chairs the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, declared that domestic plane flights should be taxed out of existence. (Yeo boasted that he now travels to Scotland by train “as a matter of conscience.”)
Without doing much to appeal to suburbanites interested in clean rivers and parks, the new Tory agenda threatened the low-cost flights that had only recently made European travel affordable for millions. It also confirmed the suspicion of many working-class voters that the Conservatives were rich elitists who cared little about job loss.
While many of the Tories’ environmental proposals were harmlessly ridiculous and had no real prospect of enactment, the empty rhetoric proved very costly. The Labour government, refusing to let the Conservative Party claim the mantle of environmental champion, swung left on the issue. The failure of environmental taxes to change behavior was taken as a sign that those taxes should be raised even further. Big increases in annual road taxes were rolled out; drivers of Honda Accords will owe over $500 per year by 2010-11. Taxes on gasoline went up, forcing motorists to pay nearly $9 a gallon. Meanwhile, taxes on plane flights were doubled, despite evidence that such a change may actually increase emissions.
British leaders have long struggled to convince the public that significant resources should be allocated to fight climate change. Yet the burgeoning global warming industry—a motley assortment of activists and NGOs—has relentlessly driven its agenda through bureaucratic and legal channels that are cut off from democratic accountability. Further insulated from political attack by Cameron’s green posturing, the climate change alarmists were able to set the terms of the debate.
While most peer-reviewed cost-benefit analyses of climate change tend to find that the costs of global warming do not merit a radical and immediate shift away from carbon-based fuels, moderate anti-carbon policies have failed to satisfy the demands of climate activists. In response to the inconvenient economics, the Labour government decided to base all its policymaking on a Treasury study by Nicholas Stern. The Stern report used an extremely low discount rate to grossly magnify the future environmental costs of climate change.
Yet, far from rebuking this folly, the Conservative Party’s Quality of Life policy group criticised the Stern report for tolerating too much planetary warming. As the Labour government advocated a 60 percent reduction in British carbon emissions by the year 2050, the Tories shot back with a demand that the nation roll back 80 percent of its emissions by that time. This merely upped the ante. The third-party Liberal Democrats responded with a call for complete decarbonization—a 100 percent reduction in emissions. No matter how hard the Tories tried, they could never “out-green” their rivals on the left.
The popular press were less indulgent of such nonsense, and many media outlets lampooned the proposed climate initiatives. Voters did not like having wealthy politicians lecture them on the demerits of prosperity, and every green policy that the Tories promoted was greeted with derision or worse. When the Tory Quality of Life group’s disastrous report was eventually released in September 2007, the Conservatives were in disarray. They were so far behind in the opinion polls that Prime Minister Gordon Brown even considered calling an early election.
Cameron had no choice but to change tack. The recovery that saw the Tories rise to their present poll lead began with a call to significantly reduce the inheritance tax. This was followed by proposals for comprehensive school choice and welfare reform. The Conservatives also suggested some tough new anti-crime initiatives. The idea that proved most useful in de-stigmatizing the Tory brand was a plan to rebuild poverty-stricken communities in disadvantaged areas.
To be sure, the Conservatives have also benefited from a complete collapse of popular support for the Labour government. Indeed, this has been perhaps the biggest factor in the Tories’ resurgence. The British economy has faltered, and voters have become less tolerant of fiscal extravagance. They are especially angry about an increase in the annual car tax, which was sold as a green measure. In a recent YouGov poll commissioned by the TaxPayers’ Alliance, 63 percent agreed with this statement: “politicians are not serious about the environment and are using the issue as an excuse to raise more revenue from green taxes.” When a recent Mori poll asked voters to name important issues facing Great Britain, only 7 percent cited the environment, while 42 percent named immigration and 35 percent said crime.
None of this is to say that conservatives should neglect the environment. Over the past few months, Cameron has been trumpeting a more holistic environmentalism, arguing that being green is “not just about the stratosphere, it’s about the street corner.” He stresses the need to eliminate graffiti and cut crime in local parks. While there is little public appetite for raising energy taxes or overhauling the British economy to deal with climate change, there is widespread support for boosting investment in green-friendly technologies, and the Tories are well-placed to advance this.
The recent success of the Conservative Party has owed little to quixotic environmentalism, and almost every Tory attempt to play the green card has been a disaster. The party seems to have learned its lesson, and is now embracing a results-driven conservation policy that defends green spaces and promotes the development of efficient clean-energy technologies. While the climate debate is often dominated by clamorous activists, ordinary voters tend to favor a more pragmatic approach. If the Tories want to maintain their huge lead over Labour, that is the type of approach they should endorse.
Matthew Sinclair is a policy analyst at the London-based TaxPayers’ Alliance. Chris Pope is program manager of the National Research Initiative at the American Enterprise Institute.
Paul Biggs is a member of the Taxpayers’ Alliance West Midlands Council