Will the next UK election produce the leaders the planet needs? Or are we going to have to look outside the box?

For those of us in the UK who want to see something serious done soon about the climate and nature emergencies, what are the chances? What we need is for the next government to be one that is wholly committed to making the sustainability transition central to everything it does, providing an overarching strategy and appropriate legislation to ensure that the private sector as well as the public sector falls in line and both use their innovation and creativity to generate a million solutions to a million problems.

As fast as possible.

Because we need to halve carbon emissions by 2030 if we want to stay below 1.5° of warming.

And that transformation needs to be global, so not only do we need to make radical changes in the UK, we need to set an example and then persuade the rest of the world’s developed economies to follow suit.

How likely is it that we will get such a government? The current Conservative government – and maybe any future Conservative government – although containing some dedicated environmentalists, is most deeply dedicated to the small state and the free market.

And the level playing field we need cannot be provided without state-led legislation, rigorous monitoring and effective support. 

So the only hope for a Conservative government is for those people who are genuinely environmentalist within the party to win the battle of ideas and take over the party. The Environmental Audit Committee of MPs is doing fantastic work, as far as I can see. It seems to be covering a wide range of topics, acknowledging the real challenges and doing its best to make other departments aware of what needs to happen. And the Conservative Environment Network is also plugging away, trying to get more MPs on board and increasing their awareness. 

But I really don’t know how much power these people have against the vested interests in favour of the fossil fuel companies and the small staters. I fear that they are just a handful of idealists who at best will only be able to nudge their colleagues towards a few token actions, rather than the necessary systemic shift. The whole Net Zero Strategy frankly smacks of this: loads of pages saying quite a few of the right things but unfortunately also saying a number of completely inadequate things, shoved together to give an impression of the government taking the subject seriously – when in fact, we have seen very little substantial action at all since it was published. 

My suspicions about the ineffectiveness of the environmentally minded Conservative MPs might be allayed if they would own up honestly to the problems of duplicitous fossil fuel companies, the philosophy of perpetual growth, libertarian opposition to regulation, etc. A convincing strategy not only lays out the vision and the steps towards that vision, it also identifies the likely obstacles and the solutions to them. I’m not seeing that level of realism and honesty from these people yet. So, despite their sincere efforts, I am not convinced we can rely on the Conservative government.*

On the other hand, what are the chances of Labour getting in and doing the job? On his website, Starmer has a good page on the Green New Deal. The trouble is, he is not putting it up front as the key plank of his vision. He is still playing a game of focus group politics, saying things he hopes will appeal to red wall voters and swing voters, but not telling them the truth. Hardly compelling leadership for a time of historic and existential threat. 

It’s not a totally hopeless case; were Labour to get in, with the commitments it has outlined so far, there is a chance that those in the party who do understand the urgency and severity of the crisis would push Starmer to enact a ‘green industrial revolution’, but would they go deeper? Would they question patterns of overconsumption? Would they maintain the assumption of continual growth? Would they be capable of doing the new thinking that is needed and of taking the population with them? 

Even more worryingly, are they capable of even winning the election? There is some hope that the Tories will have sufficiently alienated voters to lose the next one and Starmer may ascend the throne by default. But for me, at the moment, neither he nor his party are presenting a compelling, truthful vision and plan. And that suggests to me that they really still don’t get it; we can’t save the planet with a collection of fragmented short-term projects designed to appeal to those who don’t really understand the problem. It absolutely has to be a concerted project of radical change – all hands on deck, or we all sink.

A progressive coalition government might be a better solution than relying on Labour alone. For that to happen, we probably need to see a progressive alliance during the run-up to the election. Not only might this usher in proportional representation, allowing more environmentally concerned candidates into Parliament in the future, but I would hope that Caroline Lucas (and perhaps some other green MPs) could shift Labour and the Lib Dems in the direction of a root and branch sustainability strategy.

That seems the best hope to me, in terms of working in the mainstream. However, I don’t know what the current state of play is, regarding a progressive alliance. It’s worrying that it hasn’t worked out in the past. 

The other, more radical fantasy I have is that those of us who do truly get it prepare an alternative government in waiting. Because, frankly, the current lot may well be too embroiled in ineffective ways of doing things.**

I guess this implies a coup d’état; it may come to that. We can’t just stand by and watch while a bunch of Ministers of dubious competence, who are ideologically and financially in cahoots with denialists and delayists, obstruct the actions necessary to save human civilisation. As far as I’m concerned, it is the job of a democratically elected government to act in the interests of the nation as a whole and to attend to long-term threats as well as short-term ones. If the current lot are not doing the job, they’re going to have to go. 

But the terrors of the French Revolution are a doleful warning to us all. Any extra-parliamentary, alternative party or movement would have to be fundamentally committed to non-violent, collaborative, constructive dialogue and the collective and individual enactment of the Nolan principles.

As a start, I propose that a consortium of environmental NGOs and campaigning organisations puts together a leadership training programme based on the above principles and a 100% commitment to a rapid and fair transition. They should look around for bright and committed individuals from all sectors of the population who have the existing abilities and the potential to step up as capable leaders for a new sustainable society.

Not only should these candidates have thoroughgoing Carbon Literacy training, but they should also have or be given practical skills development in: 

  • Project design and management 
  • Systems thinking
  • Long term strategic planning 
  • Coalition building and mediation between different ideologies/persuasions 
  • Critical thinking and emotional literacy 
  • Public engagement and communications 
  • Government structures and processes
  • Team leadership
  • Ethics – including how to apply the Nolan Principles

Believe it or not, some MPs don’t have these skills when they are elected; they have to acquire them in post. There will be loads of learning on the job for the new generation of leaders because they will face unprecedented challenges but we do need people who can spring into action with purpose, clarity and realism. 

And there may well need to be a parallel training for civil servants.

I am living with cancer and don’t have the energy to take the lead on this but if anybody wants to do it, I’d love to be on your steering group.

* For any Conservatives who read this, I mean things like: confronting those neoliberals (or whatever you want to call them) who put profit above all else and scorn concern about environmental ‘externalities’; questioning those libertarians who are opposed to all forms of regulation; pinning down those pragmatists who are in effect defeatist, saying it’s all too late anyway; engaging with the organicists who question all forms of short-term radical change, etc. Regarding the role of the state, I was very interested that the facilitator of a webinar run by the Coalition for Conservation in Australia, and a Conservative herself, asked the panel: how do you all feel about the fact that combating climate change will probably require a greater degree of state intervention than we Conservatives normally feel comfortable with?

**I see that Vaclav Havel had a similar concept when he was a dissident in Czechoslovakia in the 1980’s – a “parallel polis”. 


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