We need committed and competent MPs to act on the climate

In this time of climate emergency, we need to think differently about policy making. One question I’ve been turning over is what kind of people we need to elect on December 12th. Whatever else happens after the election, it is crucial that there is decisive action on the environment. So I suggest that all voters consider whether their local candidates are (a) committed to environmental action and (b) competent to plan and deliver it. 

In case there’s anyone still unsure about this, let me briefly summarise the situation that we are in: 

  1. Global warming, along with other environmental threats such as declining insect numbers and top soil depletion, poses the greatest threat ever known to human civilisation.
  2. Even if some of the predictions turn out to be slightly off the mark, there is no doubt that putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere will make things worse. The basic science for this was established in the 19th century. 
  3. Action to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions  should have been started decades ago. Now we are on the brink of the tipping points that we were warned of, but ignored. 
  4. You can’t leave action on the environment until just before the deadline. It’s not like working madly to get your tax return in on January 31st. Both eco-systems and human systems have many elements that interact. We have a lot to work out and we can’t leave it until the next climate conference, the next financial year, the next government. 
  5. The key to effective action is government legislation. Only government can impose restrictions on the biggest polluters. Only government can make and implement wide-scale infrastructure plans. Only government can provide safety nets for those whose jobs will be affected by the transition to a sustainable economy. 
  6. Voters need to give a clear mandate to politicians to get on with doing what is required. In return, politicians need to recognise that they have chosen to take on a leadership role, not just a representative one.

So we need MPs who are both committed to environmental action and competent to deliver it. 

(a) Committed.

All UK governments are legally obliged to meet the targets and deadlines set under the UK Climate Change Act (2008). Last May, parliament declared a climate emergency. Now all the main U.K. parties have announced some level of commitment to carbon reduction and have included it in their manifestoes. We may have reason to hope that the tide has turned but equally we have reason to be wary. As we all know, in the last three years, substantial climate action has been almost entirely side-lined. The declaration of emergency only happened because of pressure from citizens – Extinction Rebellion, School Strike, David Attenborough – even though every day there were more reports of hotter years, extreme weather events, melting ice, dying coral reefs, species extinctions. MPs can’t be excused for not fully understanding the scale of the crisis, as we ordinary citizens might be. MPs, with the support of the Civil Service, should be aware of slow moving threats as well as shorter term, more salient ones; they should be studying the evidence and the predictions. They should be planning for the long term – because if they don’t, who will?

Those who believe that the economy should be left alone to evolve organically face the biggest ideological challenge here. Those candidates should be asked how they plan to deliver effective climate action within their value and belief system. But even those parties that are ideologically committed to regulation of the economy need to be challenged to think freshly. The ‘green industrial revolution’ that Labour talks of may well be an essential part of the transition but if it merely leads to more but different products being added into the economic mix, with an unquestioned expectation of continual growth and infinite tolerance of waste, then the situation will get worse, not better.

Extinction Rebellion’s three demands provide a useful framework for questions to ask parliamentary candidates:

  1. Are they telling their constituents the truth about how serious this emergency is? (Do they know it themselves?)

2. Are they committed to a realistic but effective target date for decarbonisation? What scientific evidence are they basing their target date on? (Is it clear that they have actually thought this through for themselves or are they just parroting the party line?)

And then the big one:

3. Are they willing to rise above tribal party politics in order to agree on a cross-party long term transition plan, informed by a set of priorities recommended by a citizens assembly? (We can’t tolerate any more delays, no matter how passionately people feel about their ideological allegiances.)

(b) Competent:

If you ever watch BBC Parliament, as I often do, you will know that many MPs are conscientious and hard working. Watch them in Select Committees and the smaller debates away from the circus of the main chamber and you will frequently see them working cross-party in a respectful way, including disagreeing politely and giving their arguments for doing so. You will hear them refer to knowledge and expertise they gained from previous employment – in business, in the law, in the voluntary sector, in the unions, health service, education, armed forces, or wherever.

So you might feel reassured that on balance we already have a good mix of people as our governors and they bring a wide range of useful skills. But you should not be complacent.

Isabel Hardman writes for the Conservative publication, The Spectator. In her book, Why We Get The Wrong Politicians (2019), she argues that the United Kingdom’s parliamentary system is seriously dysfunctional. One reason is that the process of selecting candidates is flawed, favouring people from certain backgrounds and people who can afford a considerable personal financial investment. Even more damningly, she asserts that MPs don’t or can’t do the most important part of the job well; because of entrenched tribal rules and behaviours, draft legislation is not efficiently scrutinised. When they hear the bell calling them to vote, MPs down tools and rush to the chamber, often with no idea what they are voting for; they simply do as instructed by their party’s ‘whips’. We cannot be sure that the people making our laws have given them deep thought.

No surprise then that many flaws appear once new laws are put into in practice. Despite some good work in the Select Committees, MPs often haven’t done enough research on the ground, listening to those who know best what works and what doesn’t.

They can also be pretty poor at project design and management. In The Blunders of our Governments (2014), King and Crewe lay out examples of expensive cock ups by governments of all political persuasions. Ideas can be rustled up by the leadership, often with key people not even in the room, pushed through legislation (with inadequate scrutiny), and imposed on ordinary citizens and workers with no attention to realistic timescales or budgets, or to the possible downsides. Those who draft new legislation are not required to provide a rationale, based in impartial analysis of the history of the relevant sector, nor are they obliged to provide a forward facing risk assessment, nor indicators of success or failure, nor monitoring systems for unintended consequences. In short, those who rule our country don’t display understanding and skills that are common requirements in the world of work, whether in the private, public or voluntary sectors.

I first really thought about these problems during my period as a senior manager in arts education. One day, I looked at the Person Specification for the post of Deputy Director of Children’s Services in one of the UK’s largest cities. One of the ‘essential’ competences was “at least three years experience of complex change management in a senior role” and yet, at that time, the person who was Secretary of State for Education and who was leading a major redesign of the school curriculum had no such skills; he had only ever been a journalist. It is of no matter here whether he was well intended or not, or clever or perceptive, or hard-working; the fact is he wouldn’t have got that Deputy Director post. Nonetheless, he was leading strongly from the front, determined to see his values reflected in the education system, and condemning as “the blob” anyone on the ground who dared to question his ideas or his credentials. I spoke to a parliamentary correspondent about the frustration that so many of us felt. He simply commented, “There’s not much you can do about a Minister with a mission.”

If that is true, it is worrying for our democracy. Surely all those highly experienced people within the sector should be leading on the process of improvement, not some ambitious journalist?

That’s a matter for a wider constitutional review, however. Returning to the current hustings, we mustn’t forget, when we are assessing a local candidate, that they aren’t just standing to be a conscientious case worker for their constituents, nor an able campaigner for their party, they are proposing themselves for the long-list for future ministers and Prime Ministers. Only from amongst them will the next government be chosen. And the next government will have to handle the complex and crucial task of designing and managing the transition to a sustainable economy at great speed but with great efficiency and great wisdom.

So we need to be asking all parliamentary candidates, including party leaders, about their experience as managers of complex change, about their understanding of strategy, long term goal realisation, critical paths and prioritisation, partnership working, delegation, monitoring and evaluation, negotiation, conflict resolution, international relations, and more, as well as their commitment to decarbonisation and sustainability.

In brief, they need to persuade us of their ability to do what is required in the coming, touch-and-go five years and to exhibit the wisdom of ‘meta-analysis’ – the ability to rise above the ideological fray and see the much, much bigger picture.