Dr Simon Sneddon, Senior Lecturer in Law writes:
Tomorrow (Thursday 12th December) is polling day for the General Election, in case you somehow managed to miss it.
In an era where the unprecedented actions by Extinction Rebellion, the Schools Climate strike and so on have highlighted the concerns felt globally about environmental issues, all of the main parties standing for election have made a point of showing off their green credentials.
The Conservative and Unionist Party manifesto claims that the country is already “leading a new green industrial revolution” (p3) and that the party will, if elected:
- Protect and enhance the green belt (p31) primarily by prioritising brownfield development;
- Net zero carbon by 2050;
- Create new National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and make the Coast to Coast path a “national trail” alongside existing ones like the south West Coast Path (p43). Maintenance of the current national trails is “carried out by the local highway authorities together with landowners often with the help of volunteers” (LINK);
- Page 55 of the manifesto includes some more generic, longer term goals, most of which are undated (“the coming years”), and uncosted. The Blue Belt marine programme is a continuation of an existing approach started in 2017. The target of 40Gw of offshore energy production by 2030 is a five-fold rise on the current 8.4Gw (RenewablesUK). Where there is promised funding, it is £800m for Carbon Capture and Storage, £500m for lowering carbon emissions for high energy industries, £500m for a Blue Planet fund to reduce plastic in the ocean, £4bn in flood defences, £9.2bn in energy efficiency – so a nice round £15bn (over a generally unspecified period of time).
- A £250bn Green Transformation Fund dedicated to renewable and low-carbon energy and transport, biodiversity and environmental restoration (this will be part of a £400bn National Transformation Fund)
- Net zero Carbon by the 2030s, including 7,000 offshore and 2,000 onshore wind turbines. The average offshore wind turbine currently generates 4Mw and the average onshore generates 1.6Mw, so the addition numbers come out to roughly 32Gw of additional wind energy, not far short of the Conservative Party promise.
- If wind energy use is less ambitious, flood defences are in line for a £5.6bn windfall under Labour, 40% higher than the £4bn promised by the Conservatives.
- Other, less specific promises include reducing food waste, creating new National Parks, planting trees, and ending the badger cull, all of which are laudable aims.
The manifesto of the Liberal Democrats also has a section on “Green society and Green Economy” split into ten sections. As there is considerable overlap between these sections, I have reduced the number:
- Sustainable energy – reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2045, 80 per cent renewable electricity in the UK by 2030, more investment in cutting edge tech and a ban on fracking and taxing high-use air passengers. Funded by £12bn (2020-2025)
- Better transport: build more railways (including HS2) to reduce reliance on cars, £4.5bn for more buses, 10% of transport budget for cycle lanes.
- Wildlife and Nature: improve air, water, soil quality with £18bn over 5 years, an extra £5bn fund for flood protection, reduce food waste, create a “blue belt” of Marine Protected areas by 2030, “properly fund” the National Wildlife Crime Unit and end the keeping of primates as pets.
The Green Party manifesto naturally has a strong green focus throughout, including net zero carbon by 2030 (p6), £100bn a year investment into the Green New Deal (p6), 70% of energy provided by wind power by 2030 (p10), £2.5bn a year on cycleways and footpaths (p15), cancelling HS2 (p16), and so on .
The Brexit Party has what it calls a “Contract” rather than a manifesto, and does £2.5bn for fisheries and coastal communities (though this seems to be a hybrid environmental / economic promise), planting “millions of trees” and better recycling.
I have, of course, over simplified some of these policies, have deliberately omitted Plaid Cymru and the SNP, and have undoubtedly missed out something that you consider is crucial. This is not meant to be a balanced look a the pros and cons of all the parties green policies – the BBC has done this, as have Forbes, the Financial Times, the Guardian and so on.
My point is less complex. While focusing on highfalutin, multi-billion, headline-grabbing future policy goals, all of the parties and indeed the mechanism of the election itself, are forgetting the more mundane, everyday issues associated with this periodic exercise in democracy (note: after a democratic view has been exercised, it is not undemocratic to seek a further democratic view after a period of time has passed.)
In my constituency (which has been a conservative seat since its inception 90 years ago) there is a strong likelihood that the current Conservative majority (of over 21,000) will not be overturned. It is a safe seat. As such, campaigning has not been as frenetic as it has in marginal seats (eg Northampton North – 807 conservative Majority or Northampton South – 1,159 conservative majority).
Nonetheless, I have over the past weeks received campaign literature through the door from each of the four parties which are standing (CON, LAB, LIB, GRN).
The paperwork (unless any more arrives today) weighs in at 298g. The Conservative candidate sent a one-page letter in a DL sized window envelope. The Lib Dems sent two, two-page letters (also in DL sized window envelopes) a glossy A5 flyer, and a glossy A4 gatefold flyer. Labour and the Green Party both sent a glossy A5 flyer.
There are 74,000 voters in my constituency. Even assuming only half of them received the same quantity of literature as I did, that is 11,026 kg of paper – just over 11 tons. There are 650 constituencies in the UK, and they all have roughly the same number of voters. If my constituency is typical, then we are looking at 7,150 tons of campaign literature posted through doors.
“Aha” I hear you say, “it is all recyclable, and it is an important mechanism for allowing voters to make an informed choice.”
It is all recyclable, that is true, but the “Waste Hierarchy” (the conceptual framework for avoiding excess and unnecessary waste) has “recycle” as the 3rd best choice, after reduce and reuse. Not creating the same weight in paper as a Hobart class Royal Australian Navy destroyer would seem like a decent place to start.
As for informed choice, I carried out a poll on Twitter. Not very scientific, but I have discussed it with other people since, and in response to the question “Did you change your #GE2019 voting intentions because of the leaflets which the political parties posted through your door?” the response rate was unequivocal.
Joshua Townsley (2018) suggests that for, a campaign leaflet makes non-postal voters 4.3 per cent more likely to vote, and the equivalent for postal voters is a followed by a canvassing visit, but add that “we cannot be confident that the different treatments had any effect whatsoever on turnout.” What these figures don’t show is how those people voted.
Get rid of this pointless waste of paper. Use the money that you save to get more canvassers involved in door-knocking, hold hustings that people who are undecided can turn up to and learn more.
I have a postal vote. Because I have a postal vote, I get a yellow card posted to me, to tell me that I will get a postal vote form posted to me shortly. I then get the postal vote form, in an envelope in a second envelope. If I votes in person, I would still get the paper voting form.
In the last election, 32m people cast valid votes, so 32m voting slips were produced. This has effectively bene the same process for centuries.
Various countries are currently using electronic voting systems in national elections – Brazil, Estonia, India, the Philippines, the UAE, the USA and Venezuela. Some of those may not necessarily be countries whose democratic standards we wish to emulate, but the fact remains that this is technically feasible.
Whoever wins tomorrow, whether by a clear margin or not, one lasting impact they could have is on reforming the voting system, and bringing the UK into the 21st century.