For our third week of our election tour, we returned to Uxbridge, Glasgow, North Devon and South Cambridgeshire. The ThinkIns we held spanned across various issues, but we alighted on one in particular, one of Tortoise’s five main themes – Our Planet.
We already knew what the political parties are saying about the environment, not least because of last week’s Tortoise analysis of their manifestos. But what would our members and guests say?
And so we returned to Uxbridge, this time to talk about Our Planet. The conversation could barely have happened at a better time: only two days later, Uxbridge’s current MP, the Prime Minister himself, Boris Johnson, failed to appear at a television debate on the climate. Channel 4 replaced him with an ice sculpture, which duly started melting.
Will it matter to Uxbridge voters? Our ThinkIn suggested: maybe not.
- Making it manageable. When the subject of climate change was raised, the turn the conversation immediately took was telling. It turned to recycling, to plastic bags and bottles. There’s no difficulty later in talking about the bigger questions, such as whether our economic model is sustainable (and no shortage of knowledge of the issues and the science), but that part of the conversation has to be prompted. The immediate interpretation is the manageable day-to-day one: we’re separating our rubbish already, tell us what we need to do next. The disconnect between the scale of the climate crisis and how we instinctively think of it seems as wide as ever.
- All-round disillusionment. Paradoxically, in an election where climate change is more centre-stage than before, there’s a strong sense of disenfranchisement. Individual actions seem pointless, and collective ones a dead-end if China and the US aren’t going to change their ways. The agendas of the mainstream political parties aren’t taken particularly seriously.
- The reasons to do nothing. How do people balance personal and political responsibilities? Would they, for instance, pay to change the central heating system in their home for a zero-carbon version? The climate crisis seems too far away for such a drastic and expensive change but the reasons to do nothing are right at hand: “I can’t afford to”, “I live in a flat and it’s difficult”, “the council wouldn’t let me”. Or, on another topic, “I’d love to cycle but it’s dangerous.” Every word of it true, but there’s no suggestion of a deeply frustrated desire to do more. The real sense was of most people pushing very timidly on a door they know is reassuringly closed.
- Guilt as a catalyst. In fairness to the room as a whole, there were some people who felt guilty towards grandchildren who might one day ask why they hadn’t done more. And one woman had spent her savings on top-of-the-range home insulation so that she barely has to heat her home, even in winter.
But, to the frustration of some in the room, climate change policies had the feel of window-dressing in Uxbridge. On the basis of our small sample of opinion, it’s hard to imagine many – really, any – votes in this constituency being decisively swayed by the most important issue of our time.
We’ll be back in Uxbridge and South Ruislip once more before the election.
3 December, 6.30pm, book here.
Returning to the constituency of Glasgow South West to discuss Our Planet, a tension emerged among the two-dozen people gathered in a side room of the Crookston Hotel.
A majority of hands went up when the room was asked: is the climate emergency one of three key issues going into the election? But there was also a sense that the climate is of lesser immediate concern than other issues such as housing, austerity, Scottish independence… and Brexit.
- Green new deal. There was a strong attraction to the idea of a “green new deal” – and particularly linking environmental progress to jobs. But there was also a suspicion that similar promises had been made before. Communities here were previously told they were going to be retrained in technology, one participant said, but that didn’t transpire.
- Renewable energy. Even though Scotland is a world leader in renewable energy, it isn’t an issue much discussed in the West and is seen as something that happens “in the North and the East”. The participants recognised the tension between Scotland’s continuing links to the oil and gas industry and its progressive stance on many climate issues. One guest, whose husband worked in the oil industry, suggested that windfarms might have hidden health costs.
- Irn Bru. Gordon, a Labour voter, said Scotland wasn’t properly pricing the externalities of waste and pollution and was shipping a lot of it to Nigeria. He said windfarms in Scotland hadn’t been built there and the only Scots who benefitted were the “mountaineers” who hiked up the windmills to maintain them. Gordon also claimed that Scotland’s plastic bottle vending machine policy was being abused by people “shipping their Irn Bru bottles over from Newcastle and get £18,000” in return (one for us to investigate).
- Migration. The majority of participants thought that Scotland should have control of its migration policy. “Scotland needs people,” Brian, a retired maths teacher, said. Depopulation and the tourism industry were both cited as reasons. However, guests warned that Scotland was still massively white and that migration – if it happened at scale – needed to be implemented carefully. One guest, who worked for the national housing association, said that in East Renfrewshire all of the refugees were placed in Barrhead. “They haven’t put any in Clarkson, in Giffnock, they’ve all gone to the working-class empty houses,” he said. Another mentioned Sweden’s policy of “non-ghettoisation” as a model Scotland might follow.
- Brexit. The elephant in the room, predictably. Claims that the original referendum was illegal came up, while some argued that there shouldn’t have been a referendum in the first place. Jo said it was like being sold a Range Rover and ending up with a “shite Peugeot”. Independence wouldn’t solve the big issues, Rebecca warned. “The London elite would just become the Edinburgh elite”.
- Trident. Kate, a pacifist, was wavering over voting for Labour because of its commitment to Trident.
We’ll be returning to Glasgow once more during the election campaign – to continue the conversation. It’d be great to see you there.
10 December, 6.30pm, The Lighthouse, book here.
Is this really the “climate election”? At our second ThinkIn in Barnstaple, we discussed the climate emergency and asked if it truly is the main consideration for voters over and above the fault lines of Brexit politics. It was an impassioned discussion – and the room was deeply divided. For some, Brexit still trumps all. Others (particularly younger participants) felt strongly, to echo Greta Thunberg, that environmental panic should eclipse everything else.
- Local action, global necessity. There was a strong sense of a community taking action. Many in the room talked proudly about local school strikes, the local contingent of Extinction Rebellion activists, and beach clean-ups. But this was steeped with frustration, too. There was a clear sense that, without a shift in global leadership, the actions of the few are mostly meaningless.
- Why now? So what was the tipping point in awareness – and passion? Social media has played a role, many agreed, and the BBC’s Blue Planet too. More recently, Greta and the XR movement had really had an impact on the younger participants in the room. So too had images of wildfires in Brazil. There was also a suggestion that this had started to transcend class in the UK: environmental activism is no longer a middle-class concern.
- The great divide. But the key disagreement in the room echoed a global one: is it a bottom-up movement, or top-down? Should we care about plastic clean-ups when our governments and corporations are cavalier about carbon emissions? There was fierce agreement that, across the political spectrum, not enough was being done to meet the IPCC global warming targets.
- Brexit. Despite the clear passion in the room on climate, we returned to the Leave/Remain divide, and many felt that the focus on climate was a “greenwashing” of what is still, in essence, a Brexit election. We discussed tactical voting, which is very relevant in the swing seat of North Devon (Tory/Lib Dem), and many participants said they would be doing so.
- TV debates. Television debates with party leaders were widely agreed to be irrelevant, but were clear barometers of public disdain. We discussed the recent jeering of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn on ITV. There was also a distrust of how the debates are set up – and how the audiences are selected. We discussed how “lacklustre” the leadership of the main parties feels, despite a clear Americanisation of our politics, with a new focus on personality (and the lack of it).
We will return to North Devon once more before the election.
3 December, 6.30pm, Barnstable Hotel, book here.
For our second Thinkin in the constituency of South Cambridgeshire, we gathered at The Hub Community Centre in Cambourne, for what rapidly turned into a lively discussion on climate change, conservation and green transport.
The discussion captured two directly colliding phenomena:
- A passionate level of regional and neighbourhood activism and personal investment in local environmental issues.
- The absolute disdain of most in the room for the main parties’ climate emergency plans and an unambiguous pessimism about the UK’s prospective leverage in global negotiations concerning the future of the planet.
- Rosanna framed the debate that followed with a powerful contribution on the state of local chalk streams (they’re running dry) and the consequences for endangered species. Seeking help from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, she had been rewarded with nothing better than warm words.
- As part of a broader lament about the state of local transport infrastructure, there was a high level of concern that the proposed Oxford-Cambridge arc was simply part of a broader scam to build on greenfield land. Wendy argued that most of the meetings presented as local consultations were nothing of the sort.
- In this context, Roger spoke with bleak irony about the culture of “non-sultation” – sham exercises in democratic “green-washing” acting as a distraction from decisions already taken.
- There were mixed opinions on the value of a local consultative assembly held in 2018 on climate policy. Was this yet another token gesture with hand-picked members, or an authentic – if flawed – attempt to find a middle path between representative and direct democracy?
The bigger picture:
- As so often on this ThinkIn tour, there was little if any interest in what the main national parties had to say on these issues. The disconnect between lived experience and national political discourse was all but total. The room assented clearly to the idea that the old “connective tissue” between the two had frayed to the point of non-existence.
- Interestingly, there was much less enthusiasm for water renationalisation than for serious regulation of the industry. Ownership was not seen as the key variable.
- There was consensus that trust in the national political and media class had collapsed in the past decade, and, with that collapse, confidence that governments of any ideological stripe could make a serious difference.
- Allied to this was a general belief, expressed most strongly by Hassaan, that post-Brexit Britain would cut a sorry figure on the world stage and carry little weight in the struggle for a global collaborative approach to climate change.
- Immigration. There was clear consensus in the room that cross-border population mobility was now a fact of life, mostly beyond the reach of national governments (in spite of populist rhetoric to the contrary). Much greater concern was expressed about global population growth and its sustainability.
- John noted the irony that nearby Cambridge University encapsulated precisely the kind of soft power that Britain would be less able to maximise as – increasingly – it punched below its weight. The UK was entering an era of self-inflicted irrelevance at precisely the wrong historic moment.
We’ll be returning to South Cambridgeshire before the election. Please do join us.
Tuesday, December 10, The Blue School, Classroom 2, Cambourne, book here.
Photos by Tom Pilston