The real deal political debate, at least for the residents of Holborn and St Pancreas constituency, was held last week, and I went along to witness the drama unfold. The Labour candidate Keir Starmer, Green party leader and candidate Natalie Bennett, Lib dem candidate, Jill Fraser, and Conservation candidate Will Blair had all been invited to argue their party’s position on the issue of climate.
The event really did start with some drama, as the candidate for the Social Equity party, David O’Sullivan, demanded he should be able to represent his views. Although it was justified that the party were not invited, as they have no councillor in Camden, democratically, we held a vote, and then rather undemocratically the panel just decided to let him join them.
Climate Answers’ own Stephen Tindale was Chair and gave a brief introduction to each party. The Lib Dems had the asset of Ed Davy, who had been an excellent promoter of UK renewables, tripling installed capacity. The Tories were the party to sign the UNFCCC and had previously sold the last election on ‘vote blue go green’. The Greens were obviously green, but “was the ambition matched with concrete policy – excuse the non-green reference”. And Labour were the party who signed Kyoto; Ed Miliband had been a good energy secretary before being the leader of the opposition, but now, he rarely mentioned the subject. Each candidate then introduced themselves to the large audience of concerned locals.
The Lib Dem and Tory both had quite relaxed introductions, selling themselves as locals. The Lib Dem had clear knowledge and passion for local issues and local people. The Tory focused on the issues that the government have been successful in solving, revelling a little in the success of the Lib Dem’s Ed Davey. The new addition, David from the social equity party, might as well have been Marx himself. Capitalism, austerity and war were the problems and the underlying profit motive needed to go; a policy he repeated throughout much of the evening (and due to this repetitiveness I have not recorded below his later answers). The Green party leader, Natalie Bennett, who is currently second in the constituency’s polls, delivered a surprisingly confident and strong introduction, nothing like the weak political performances she is often criticised for. She stood up and argued the severity of the global and local issues we face, and the fact that our political history on tackling these issues has left us behind other countries. We need to take a different path to a sustainable future: a green path. The current leader in the polls, the Labour candidate Keir Starmer was also extremely convincing. He too stressed that he was local, but quickly moved on to the issue of climate change and his successful history in tackling it, from his lawyer training, to his work representing Greenpeace, time in warzones and experience of running a front line public services (he was previously Director of Public Prosecutions). He then listed, with clear pride, Labour’s track record on climate change and finished by stressing the necessity of the EU for an international, cooperative approach to climate change. From this brief intro, it was clear they were all likeable but the Greens and Labour deserved their position at the top of the polls. But now it was time to see if their policies matched up.
The first question of the evening was simple but essential: how do we get rid of fossil fuels?
Greens: Natalie’s strong answer was built around three areas: conservation of energy, increasing renewables and sustainable transport. In the three minutes she was given to solve the UK’s energy crisis she managed to squeeze in a lot of her policies, including no fracking, no HS2, the role of local communities and authorities, improved public transport and an improved housing stock to reduce fuel poverty. She also took the opportunity to hit the Tories, claiming their flagship green investment bank had unsustainably imported deforested trees to use as biofuels. The Greens supported no such venture, but were in favour of biofuels from waste. I asked what the panel thought of carbon bridge technologies such as nuclear and carbon capture and storage? Here, Natalie’s answer was not so strong. First she disagreed that we can’t do 100% renewables, which is not what I had said or asked. She then did interestingly argue the need for managing demand with an interconnected grid across Europe and a decentralised energy system: two good policies. However she went on to argue against nuclear, and against uncertain CCS ; in my view, two bad policies. On additional questioning about when can we expect 100% renewables and what to use before then, she had no real answer. When pushed she said zero carbon electricity by 2030, but the lack of strength in this answer compared to her last were clear. As a Green voter this concerned me, a central aspect to their policy did not seem to have been thought out.
Conservatives: Will Blair made no attempt to defend against the earlier attack on the green investment bank. Instead he listed some obvious polices, the need to diversify and to increase renewables, before turning to some interesting stuff. He argued the need for exploiting innovative tidal power – putting a smile on the Chair’s face – and also for nuclear and shale gas, stating we needed to explore all safe and suitable options to lessen dependency on Russia. He answered equally sensibly to my question, saying we do have an energy crisis which we will not plug with renewables until 2050. In the mean time we need to take his diversification approach; pro-nuclear, pro-shale gas and pro-tidal whilst also developing solar and wind. His answer was realistic, though he neglected to mention CCS.
Labour: Keir answered very fluently. He argued there were two issues at stake: reducing fossil fuels and increasing renewables. He referred back to the 2008 Climate Act and then forward to the Paris conference this year, arguing that targets are needed to force change and targets are exactly what Labour intends to enforce. Stephen, being openly unconvinced by targets, challenged him on this, asking how Labour would enforce such targets. To this Keir gave a less convincing answer, saying he didn’t think there was always a need for a stick, just an obligation. I remain unconvinced. I was much more convinced with his well-considered answer to my question. He said he believed it is too late to pursue Natalie’s idea of 100% renewables without a bridge: essentially we cannot move fast enough to renewables without something filling the gap in the meantime. However, despite accepting the need for a bridge, he did not explain what it should be, leaving me rather disappointed.
Lib-Dems: Jill had the capacity for a strong answer here, promising to continue the success of Ed Davey. Instead she stated that she disagreed with her party (something she repeated regularly) and that she believed fossil fuels should stay in the ground. However she added some insightful ideas, such as reusing heat and promoting efficiency. Her turn to answer my question was last so perhaps this explains why she argued for energy conservation again and teaching sustainability in schools, two good points but really not anything to do with what I had asked.
HS2 and Aviation:
The next topic for discussion: if the panel were against HS2 and against airport expansion, where should all the passengers go, how do we connect the country? Another question from the audience was whether aviation should be further taxed.
Lib Dem: Jill started by stressing her opposition to HS2, a position which united all the candidates. However she continued that she was not against trains, and sees them as a good option to connect the country, if they are put in sensible places for sensible reasons. Her answer mainly focused on being anti-HS2 and neglected to give much of an alternative that the questioner had asked for. In response to the idea of a tax on aviation, she said she did not believe in increasing tax, as it ultimately harms the poor. Any change in aviation policy, she argued, must be slow.
Greens: Another strong answer from the Greens, they believed in not just transport policy, but transport and communication. Natalie argued that improving Wi-Fi could be a better investment than trains; facilitating more remote working and Skype conferences. She also advocated a more balanced economy, promoting regional development so there is not so much pressure on transport from London. On the question of aviation and tax she disagreed with the Lib Dems, arguing that taxing the rich and the big companies should certainly be done. On aviation, she said it did need to be taxed, with ultimate plans to introduce carbon quotas for air travel. She also took the opportunity again to mention many of her other policies, attacking the government on reducing fuel duty, and promoting her plans to reduce fuel poverty and enforce a living wage. Fitting in so many policies in this way does make it seem like her approach is well considered, and that she represents the complete package.
Labour: Keir repeated the previous points; he is against HS2 but pro-trains and pro-balancing development with realism. On aviation taxation he walked the middle ground between the Lib Dems and the Greens, arguing that any tax needs to be progressive to minimise detrimental impacts on equity. He then changed the subject to tax in general, or specifically, those who do not pay it. Both tax evasion and tax avoidance need to be combatted, and for that not only do we need stricter sanctions, but to work with other countries to tighten up rules on an international scale. This international outlook point, which supports Labour’s pro-EU approach, was often repeated by Keir, and was very convincing.
Tories: Will argued against HS2 but essentially missed the main point of the question. He did say that he was pro more people working from home, and was unsure on a tax on air passengers due to equity issues. But what he lacked in content he made up for on delivery: he seemed much more relaxed from here on, and a person behind me remarked “I can’t stand the Tories but they are certainly more palatable with a sense of humour”.
The big topic of the moment was then raised: how would each party improve air quality?
Tory: Will gave a short and sweet answer. He said it was a question of expanding the low emission zone, and following some of the progress that had been made in Paris. Obvious stuff with no real policies.
Lib Dem: Jill clearly knows her stuff about the issue of air quality on a local scale and was equally passionate about it. She often mentioned work she had been involved in on the congested and polluted Euston Road. She also advocated widening the low emission zone, but added that it was important to work with TFL and taxi drivers for a more reliable and clean system. She suggested stopping big freight lorries from entering city centres, instead recommending that goods should travel by train and be moved to their destination by smaller vehicles (as I argued in my recent blog on air quality – http://climateanswers.info/2015/03/march-blows-air-quality-back-onto-the-agenda/)
Green: Natalie’s answer started very strong once again. She had some impressive evidence of an air quality study in the area which highlighted the severity of the issue. She went on to attack the government’s policy of advising people to walk on the side of the pavement further from the cars as laughably unacceptable. Instead, we simply need to reduce traffic and catalyse a shift to walking, cycling and public transport. She argued that Boris’ new buses were not as green as they could be, and that green should always be a priority for future development. She also agreed with Jill that it is necessary to work with taxi drivers to help them move to low emissions vehicles. After this strong approach to national policy, she was pulled up on her party’s position on Europe: did she not think the EU was important for air quality? She replied that the Greens believe in three yesses to Europe: yes to a referendum as they believe in democracy and most people have never had a chance to vote, but yes to the EU – they will campaign to stay in – and yes to EU reform, especially against initiatives like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). This last point generated huge applause but I could not help but feel, despite the cheers, that a referendum is a huge gamble from the Greens’ plans.
Labour: Keir did not let her ride off on the applause unchecked. He stressed again how important international cooperation was to tackling climate change, and argued that the Greens were putting any meaningful climate change policy at risk with a referendum. Natalie did not combat this challenge so well, perhaps because her personal view is concurrent with his. In defending internationalism, Keir referenced the need for and inevitability of free movement of labour, the fact that UK goods would be disadvantaged if we left the EU which would affect the poorest, and the reality that leaving the EU would give us less power over the changes that affect us, not more. Returning to air quality at home, Keir repeated the policies of the other candidates, promote public transport, walking, cycling and working from home. Not much difference therefore in the candidate’s opinions on that front.
Next, a question from the London cycling association: Should the UK introduce a law on perceived liability? Similar laws have been introduced in other EU countries and mean the driver in the less vulnerable situation (i.e. in the car/lorry) has to prove their innocence in the case of an accident. This often leads to a change in behaviour, to more sensible and safe driving.
Labour: As the lawyer, Keir went first. Although in favour of any scheme that protects cyclists, he confessed to being unsure on this one. This was due to the fact it could change the whole fabric of the country’s justice system and could spread to other areas of the law with the risk of less equity in cases. He did say he was happy to discuss it but he did not seem convinced. I am not a lawyer so cannot really comment, but if it has worked elsewhere, perhaps it could work here.
Greens: Natalie was back to being strong as she argued the complete opposite: the Greens are very pro a perceived liability law. She drew from some personal anecdotes of the dangers of cycling, and argued that it is imperative for attitudes to change. Once again she squeezed in some of her other policies, such as 20 mph roads across London which would make it a more pleasant and safe place for walking and cycling.
Tory: Defending the government, Will played the numbers game, arguing that money per head on cycling is going up, and so is the number of cyclists. Skipping any further answer on the subject, he went back to defend Natalie’s stance on an EU referendum.
Lib Dems: Jill made an important point: when there is high pollution, it is the cars that should be left at home, not the bikes. At present, we have the wrong priorities. She also argued that she was pro perceived liability, challenging Labour on it. Keir defended his point again, saying he was not saying no, just that it may be difficult to do fairly.
As the hustings came to an end, the audience had a chance to express their opinions. Renewed concern about plugging our energy gap with renewables was raised, as was sustainability education in schools, and how to turn our local worries about climate change, into national, and international action. So which candidate looked most likely to be the one representing these opinions after May 7th? At the last election, Labour MP Frank Dobson won with a large majority, but after 34 years representing Holborn and St Panrcras, he is now standing down, leading some to suggest the seat is all to play for. In December, it did seem as if the vote may be close, with the Greens getting very close to Labour’s heels in the polls. However as the election has drawn nearer, the support for the Greens seems sadly to be waning. In my view, this is a shame, as Natalie Bennett defied doubts and performed exceptionally at the hustings, convincing me for certain that she would make an excellent MP. But unlike the election in general, this seat is not a lesser of two evils, but the better of two good candidates. Keir Stammer, will most likely win, and this is no shame at all. He also performed excellently and came across as a very strong candidate. Although I will not be voting for him, I am very happy for him to represent my home constituency and I am sure he will do an excellent job at furthering the climate cause.