What are we to make of the Conservatives' recent enthusiasm for all things 'green’? The cynics amongst us will be quick to point out that we've been here before. They will remind us of David Cameron's hug a husky phase and the “go green vote blue” schtick from 2006. But, once they got into power, one of their first acts was to abolish the Sustainable Development Commission. Cameron appointed a climate change denier, Owen Paterson, as Environment Secretary and removed support for renewable energy while boosting subsidies for fossil fuels and promoted fracking before eventually declaring that he wanting to “get rid of all the green crap”.
So, given this kind of track record, maybe it isn't all that cynical to have doubts about the Tories' sincerity. In fact, this is a view reinforced by recent reports that Tory policymakers see highlighting green issues as an easy and relatively painless way to appeal to younger voters who might otherwise be attracted by Jeremy Corbyn’s message. Seen in this way, it is simply a question of party political advantage and a response to internal polling that indicates that a spot of greenwash will go down well with voters.
But that doesn't mean to say that all Tories are cynical vote grabbers who will say anything to get elected. Okay, it might be largely true but it isn't the full story. There are many Conservative supporters who are concerned about the environment, who are worried about plastic pollution and want to see a boost in support for renewable energy. The current balance of forces (we might say power vacuum) enables more enlightened Conservatives – supporters of the Bright Blue group, for example – to press their case so shouldn't we support them in their endeavours? After all, all political parties are coalitions of various forces and it is no surprise that those on the less extreme wing of the party should see an opportunity. The short answer is yes and I for one wish them luck, not least because they are going to need it.
While Mrs May talks the talk about things like social justice in her attempt to appeal to blue collar, Brexit voting workers in the North and Midlands, in many respects the Tories are sliding to the right. The popularity of Jacob Rees-Mogg amongst the party faithful doesn't point towards a renaissance of Tory enlightenment any time soon, if ever. Indeed, it points in the other direction.
Another cautionary lesson about the Tories apparent 'green' conversion is to be found in the sheer long term nature of many of their policy aspirations (there isn't enough detail to call them proposals). As a rule, I would welcome long term thinking in politics but the shape and form of the government's proposals have 'kicking the can down the road' written all over them. The late Harold Wilson once remarked that a week is a long time in politics so 25 years is nothing short of an eternity.
Outside of the world of political posturing, many of the policies we need are urgent: to tackle Co2 emissions, to clean up our air, to radically reduce plastics; all these demand action and they demand it now. They also demand political courage and determination to start making decisive changes today, not sometime in the future. But hardly anything coming out of government points towards a clear strategy.
In fact, if you read A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment (see here>) it is more like a green smokescreen to deflect criticism from claims that Brexit will mean a reduction of environmental standards than a serious attempt to tackle urgent problems and redirect our economy along a more environmentally sustainable path.
True, they point to some of the challenges we face and promise action but making the right noises is one thing, putting in place concerted action is another. In this sense, it isn't so much what they say, it is more what they don't say. Nothing on withdrawing support for fossil fuels and calling time on fracking, nothing about compelling manufacturers to clean up their act, and there are more than a few out-and-out contradictions. For instance, under Industrial Strategy and the 25 Year Environmental Plan (p18): we have “Future of Mobility – becoming a world leader in the way people, goods and services move.” At a time when many Tories are promoting the idea that we should decouple ourselves from our closest neighbours in order to trade more with people on the other side of the world while making it even harder for people, goods and services to move just a few miles across the Channel, it is hard to see how we will reap any environmental benefits from a 'Hard Brexit'.
But the proof of the pudding will, of course, be in the eating and that means looking at what happens on the ground. Since the Tories (aided and abetted by the Lib Dems) got into power in 2010, all environmental issues have been pushed down the political agenda not just at central government level but, most crucially, at local level too.
Take Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council for example. Back in 2008 TMBC produced its climate change strategy which, in many ways, is an excellent document. The only problem is, virtually nothing ever happened. Post 2010, action on climate change (as opposed to pious words) slid down the agenda and, instead, we have seen the gradual deterioration in air quality, the imposition of more and more building on greenfield sites and now threats by KCC to reduce rural bus services. KCC and TMBC vigorously opposed plans to pedestrianise Tonbridge High Street and even sabotaged the possibility of future action by abandoning the Hadlow Road/Shipbourne Road link. More recently, the council sees nothing wrong in building over green spaces such as River Lawn in Tonbridge.
We will need to keep up the pressure locally to force the Tories to put their money where their aspirations claim to be. From defending green spaces, demanding effective action on air quality, pushing for more cycle paths, defending (and extending) public transport to reducing car dependency, taking meaningful action on plastics; right across the board we need a strong Green Party to make the case. For us, ensuring environmental protection and social justice are not simply electoral poses, they go to the very heart of what we stand for.
We welcome a wider debate and greater awareness of “green issues” and we are keen to build a broad consensus for action but it needs to be the right action that makes a lasting difference, that brings about structural social and economic change to ensure that everybody shares in the rewards of a healthy environment and contributes to its continued maintenance.
We should always welcome genuine commitment to environmental protection from whatever quarter it comes but there is a difference between this and hijacking an issue in order to dilute it or to use it for narrow party political advantage. We've seen that before and we won't be fooled again.