Sarah Ingham: A blue party + green promises = yellow vests

29 May

Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.

Among the Met Office’s list of storm names for 2021 are Heulwen – Welsh for sun-blessed if not for irony – and Saidhbhin.

Probably only those of us who won’t be needing to fill sandbags have enough time on our hands to fret about the tricky pronunciation of dhbh. The millions living in flood-risk areas will instead surely cheer this week’s announcement by the Environment Agency that it will default to low carbon concrete when constructing the nation’s flood defences.

With man-made climate change being blamed almost every time it rains – or fails to rain – on Britain’s green and pleasant land, it seems fitting that the quango charged with protecting us from flooding should be leading the charge on cutting carbon, arguably the cause of all the storms from Aiden to Wilson and the accompanying floods which have beset the country in recent years.

During the week political attention was focused on Dominic Cumming’s truth bombs in his marathon select committee appearance (which rivals the Duke of Sussex’s vengeful confessionals with Oprah), the EA’s dash towards carbon neutrality by the end of the decade will surely be welcomed by the Government. At least this State offshoot is fizzing with enthusiasm about Carbon Net Zero, rather than tipping a bucket of reality over it.

When it comes to ripping out the domestic gas boilers which currently provide the heat and hot water for 30 million homes, ministers might be following the net zero science, but cautious householders would probably prefer to listen to experts.

Just as the EA was issuing its statement, Pimlico Plumbers’ boss Charlie Mullins, who probably knows his way around condensate drain traps better than most MPs, was pouring cold water on targets to substitute our trusty gas combis for net zero-friendly alternatives, including heat pumps or biomass boilers. Mullins’ message to the Government, as reported by the Daily Mail? ‘Get real.’

Deadlines for Britain to go greener are fast approaching. Gas boilers are to be banned from new homes in 2025, and banished forever by 2035, while sales of new petrol and diesel cars are to be outlawed by 2030. As the recent Queen’s Speech reminded us, the United Kingdom is committed to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

A legally binding target was set by the May administration and waved through in June 2019 by the discredited Zombie Parliament, probably hoping to bathe in redemptive greenwash. Last month, the Johnson Government trumped this by enshrining in law a new target to slash emissions by 78 per cent by 2035.

Conservatives are meant to conserve, so why not save the planet? But the warm glow of doing the right thing is not going to make up for the absence of central heating when our gas boilers are consigned to the scrap heap. Hydrogen boilers are hardly off the drawing board. In an interview with Andrew Marr, Jo Biden’s Climate Tsar, John Kerry, conceded the highly inconvenient truth that half the technology to get us to Net Zero has not yet been invented.

The global lockdown delivered the sort of cuts to energy use and emissions which were beyond the wildest dreams of Greta Thunberg, Greenpeace and Plane Stupid combined. According to the National Grid, demand for power in Britain fell by as much as 20 per cent. Flexible working has reduced the EA’s emissions from business travel by 48 per cent and from buildings by 22 per cent.

Kerry insists that we don’t have compromise our quality of life in order to cut emissions. Step forward Elon Musk, able to square high-end conspicuous consumption with the circle, nay halo, of eco-responsibility. Unlike the pious Prius, Musk’s Tesla makes electric cars the objects of desire. Available next year, the Model S Plaid+ will have a projected top speed of 200mph. And a price tag of about £140,000, which won’t be payable in Bitcoin. Musk recently tweeted that Tesla would not accepting the cryptocurrency because of its environmental impact – just before his Gulfstream landed in Luton.

As the Government ushers us towards the net zero future, it had better be sure of the science. The unintended consequences of getting this wrong will dwarf Labour’s debacle over diesel. As Chancellor, Gordon Brown levied cheaper car tax on diesel vehicles, which emitted lower carbon but higher pollutants, ultimately contributing to Britain’s poorer air quality.

Similarly, the pursuit of biodiversity was a factor in the EA’s decision not to dredge the Somerset Levels. Man-made ignorance of historical practise rather than man-made climate change caused the catastrophic floods of 2013/14.

If polls show that voters favour going green, they are not voting Green. In 2019, when we were in the grip of the Climate Emergency apocalypse now, with Greta berating the UN (‘how dare you?’) and Extinction Rebellion clogging London’s streets with its crusties, pink boat and showboating actor Emma Thompson, the Green Party won two million votes and seven seats in the Euro Elections. A fair result but outshone by the Brexit Party. Although they wanted a very different outcomes, both the Greens and Nigel Farage’s followers demanded seismic national change.

In this month’s elections, the Greens failed to gained seats to Wales’ Senedd, won just six per cent of the seats in the Scottish Parliament and garnered 358 votes in Hartlepool. A reasonable showing in the Bristol mayoral race is hardly a national mandate for the policies they advocate.

‘Let them drive Teslas’. The 2018/19 Gilets Jaunes protests in France were in part provoked by green taxes imposed by the Macron government, whose well-to-do members were perceived as increasingly out-of-touch.

Vote Blue, Go Green was a Cameron-era slogan for the Conservative Party. In going green, the current government must ensure voters in the blue and red walls never have to reach for their yellow vests.

It’s pronounced sigh-veen.

Dan Boucher: The future of the union is at stake in the upcoming Senedd elections. Conservative voters cannot afford to bow out.

7 Apr

Dr Dan Boucher has previously stood in Westminster and Senedd elections. He lives with his family in Swansea.

One distinctive aspect of Welsh politics since the advent of devolution in 1999 has been the tendency of some Conservative voters not to vote in Assembly or Senedd elections, as they are now called, on principle because they don’t believe in devolution.

This is a very relevant consideration when reflecting on the fact that if everyone who voted Conservative in the 2019 General Election votes Conservative in the 2021 Senedd elections, the Welsh Conservatives will form the next Welsh Government in May 2021, ending 22 years of continual Labour Government.

The same was also true at the last Assembly (as they were then called) elections. If everyone who voted Conservative in the 2015 General Election had voted Conservative in the 2016 Assembly Election then the Welsh Conservatives would have formed the Welsh Government in May 2016, but they didn’t.

Is there any reason to believe that things might be different this year?

Quite apart from the fact that the latest polling shows a significant drop in support for Welsh Labour, and an increase in support for the Welsh Conservatives, such that Labour are now just two per cent ahead, there are some underlying changes that could make 2021 a different experience from 2016. One of these is the increasing talk about Welsh independence.

The Yes Cymru campaign for an independent Wales was initiated shortly before the last Assembly election but was too new to have any impact on its outcome. Since then, however, the movement has grown – with a number of marches in Cardiff, Methyr and Caernarfon – and some polling suggesting support for Welsh independence, while still a minority view, has grown from around 12 to 39 per cent.

Of huge importance, the Yes Cymru movement has even impacted Welsh Labour – at one time an unequivocally unionist party. 2017 saw the formation of its own pro-independence movement – Labour for an Independent Wales – and the selection of three pro-independence Labour candidates in May’s Senedd elections. To allow the implications of this to sink in, one only has to pause and try to imagine an equivalent development within Scottish Labour!

In a context where it seems clear Labour won’t be able to form the next Welsh Government other than in coalition with Plaid Cymru, it’s inconceivable that Plaid won’t make pressing for an independence referendum the price for its support.

Indeed, that scenario is judged to be a sufficient cause for concern to have already come up in UK Cabinet discussions. Of course, Labour First Minister, Mark Drakeford rather suggested to Andrew Marr that he would not agree to a coalition on these terms, but given that where there is no guarantee Drakeford will continue to lead Labour after the election, this development surely has the potential to completely reconstitute the Senedd elections for many Conservative voters?

Anyone who has campaigned in Wales will know the experience of talking to the cohort of Conservative voters who don’t vote in Assembly elections. Invariably they will say something like, “I always vote Conservative in the Westminster elections but never vote in the Assembly elections because I think we should be governed from Westminster. I voted against the creation of the Assembly and think it’s a waste of money.”

In the past when encountering this view on the doorstep, one would respond by pointing out that as there now is a Welsh Assembly and Welsh Government, their decision not to vote was denying them a voice on key issues like health and education. By not voting in Assembly elections they were making themselves less and not more like the voters in England because they were cutting themselves off from the opportunity to vote on what many regard as the single biggest election issues, the NHS, which in Wales is wholly governed from Cardiff.

However, voters who would rather give up their ability to have any impact on one of the biggest election issues, the NHS, than authenticate an institution they regard as an indecent qualification of the union, are only likely to maintain that position for so long as doing so does not help facilitate what they regard as the greater danger. Prioritising expressing disdain for devolution becomes somewhat irrelevant when independence becomes the presenting issue, especially if doing so could inadvertently help the cause for independence.

Moreover, if this cohort of Conservative voters now concludes that in these changed political circumstances, the priority must be a unionist majority Senedd, such that for the first time they vote in the Senedd elections, then this will no doubt come as something of a relief, as it will also enable them to rediscover their voice on the NHS, Education, Agriculture and Tourism which they have not enjoyed for nearly a quarter of a century.

Then of course, in addition to those Conservative voters who don’t vote in Senedd elections on principle, there are those who don’t simply because they don’t see it as a priority. While their decision hitherto not to vote in Senedd elections is not based on the principle of not wanting to authenticate devolved government, it is likely that many could nonetheless be moved to vote for the first time in these elections because of their commitment to preserving the union and recognition that henceforth, it will be imperative to ensure that the Senedd has as strong a unionist majority as possible.

Some might respond to the above analysis by pointing out that just as some Conservatives only vote in Westminster elections, the same is true of some Labour voters. On this basis surely one might equally well say that if all those who voted Labour in 2019 in Wales vote Labour in 2021, Labour will form the next Welsh Government?

In a context, however, where support for independence remains a minority view, there must be the possibility that some Labour voters whose loyalty to the union is greater than having a permanent Labour First Minister (regardless of whether or not they usually vote in Senedd elections), might vote Conservative on this occasion to send a message to Welsh Labour?

In this sense the 2021 elections could have some similarities to 2019 when Labour voters turned to the Conservatives to honour Brexit, with constitutional concerns trumping normal party loyalties. Some Labour voters might find this an easier proposition to entertain this year given that in a democracy being permanently in power progressively erodes one’s authority. Labour has been in government now for 22 years without interruption. That’s already unprecedented in modern British history and yet it is now seeking another five years, which would take its total innings to 27 years.

At the end of the day, whatever way one looks at it, the upcoming election is distinctive because the new Senedd will not merely discuss how to manage the Welsh NHS and education system within the current devolved settlement. It will also inevitably engage with the independence question and in that context, unionists up and down Wales need to vote to ensure that the only serious party of Government that is passionately committed to the union, the Conservative and Unionist Party, (there are no “Conservatives for an Independent Wales”) is represented as strongly as possible.