Climate change in the election and where the Lib Dems have gone wrong

About 10 years ago I was part of one of the most forgettable election campaigns of all time. A group of us targeted a bunch of swing constituencies aiming to get climate change on the local agenda. It wasn’t exactly a triumph.

Our efforts can definitively now be buried for good. Climate change has never been so high up the list of voters’ priorities: in the latest YouGov poll the environment is the joint third-highest issue the public say is facing the country. An Ipsos Mori question on which issues voters said would determine their vote also found climate and the environment was the fifth-top priority (in both it’s joint with the economy).

The surge in concern has opened new electoral battlegrounds but it’s not self-evident how they’re playing out. Two possible routes stand out.

Toxifying the Tories

One way climate change could play in voting decisions is for it to toxify the Tories. This is like what happened in 2017, when pro-Labour websites did a remarkably successful job of building the salience of previously obscure stories attacking the Tories on environmental issues, like their failure to pledge a ban on sales of ivory products.

But even last election there wasn’t much on climate change. In fact, the Tories have largely avoided being punished on climate change at elections. They probably have David Cameron to thank for that: his husky-hugging trip to the Arctic in 2006 and support for the Climate Change Bill meant, to casual viewers, there wasn’t much distinction between the major parties.

But since 2017 a lot of people have stopped viewing climate change just casually. The Tories can point to having strengthened the UK’s climate target, from an 80% cut to net-zero by 2050 (which means they’ve already enacted a law that’s stronger than Labour pledged in their 2017 manifesto) but there is plenty of space to criticise their record in delivering policies to meet the target, as Labour have already been doing.

Since the people most worried about climate change are more likely to be Remainers and 2017 Labour or Lib Dem voters – ie not the people Johnson is aiming for – the significance of any toxification of the Tories might be to squeeze Lib Dem votes. If the Tories look sufficiently unpalatable on climate, Labour can argue in Labour-Tory contests that a vote for the Lib Dems is too much of a risk.

Competing for climate voters

Is there any hope for the Lib Dems? Possibly, but they would need to start talking about climate change differently.

Rather than just being repelled by bad policies, voters could also be attracted to vote for parties with strong climate policies. If the voters care enough, the party with the strongest pledges should benefit – implying a race between Labour and the Lib Dems for more ambitious climate policy. This seems like the logic behind the various pledges to plant many trees to help absorb carbon.

But I’m not persuaded that this is actually happening very much. Labour and the Lib Dems might have the most ambitious climate policies they’ve ever had, but they’re not using them to fight each other. 

Looking at the Facebook ad library – which records political ads – none of the parties have spent more than a few hundred pounds on climate ads (to put that in context, the three main parties have between them spent a bit over £400k on Facebook in the last week). Same goes, as far as I can see for surrogate accounts like Labour Future. The climate debate on Channel 4 was also pretty consensual, without much effort between the parties to criticise one another’s policy.

Maybe this isn’t surprising when Labour and the Lib Dems have moved so far in so little time. They’ve perhaps caught themselves by surprise at where they are now. But it means that climate change still hasn’t become normal politics, in the way that Labour and the Lib Dems are happy to argue about Brexit, despite having pretty similar policies.

This is probably fine for Labour because it means the main distinction is with the Tories (though I’m still surprised they’re not doing more to attack the Tories on the climate). But it’s a problem for the Lib Dems. So long as the contrast is between the Tories and all the other parties, Labour can put the fear of Johnson into their want-away Remainers.

It may be too late for this election, but for the Lib Dems to benefit from the surge in concern about climate, they need to show how they would be better at halting the crisis than Labour would be. The argument the Lib Dems need is probably that only they have credible, deliverable policies that are appropriate to the challenge. Maybe also a hint that they would insist on the Tories being better on the climate in any coalition negotiations.

In short, the Lib Dems need to persuade 2017 Labour-voting Remainers (and some Lib Dems too) that, on climate change, it’s not just a question of the Tories versus the others. Until they do, the growing alarm about the climate crisis will mostly help Labour, and not them.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), shows why public opinion about climate change is important and what could overcome climate apathy.

  1. Geof Whitnall says:

    The Lib Dem’s have gone wrong because they elected a leader who is far right and not democratic at all. She jumped on the band wagon of climate change and it was just for more votes. If she was seen to be the one supporting people with fantastic ideas to help the planet it would have been different, but she’s not. All she is for is self glory. There are some brilliant ideas from individuals which are not taken up by politicians. Like for instance the Severn Estuary which has the biggest tidal flow in Europe and could generate huge amounts of electricity. And what does Britain do, employ the french to build a nuclear Power plant on the estuary bank at massive cost and not even proven if it will work. EDF have had huge problems.

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