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Sunak’s Green Blitz: The Road To Winning Votes Clashes With Climate Commitments

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

Sophie Dyas

Rishi Sunak took a divisive u-turn last week in a bid to close the widening gap with Labour. With public opinion turning against the Tories and business execs seemingly preparing for a Starmer administration, No10 is under pressure to find a cause that appeals to the electorate. 


Yet, after 13 years of Conservative Britain, it seems increasingly clear that the Tories are running out of things to blame on Labour. So, in comes a new strategy. This isn't the typical economy, law and order or migration line that often overshadows elections. The new approach emerging from No10 seems to be based on…cars? 


The Tories are now the 'pro-motorist' party, supposedly. Sunak has made several policy reversals in what appears to be a growing anti-green agenda to prove their support of the motorist.


To show his allegiance to the motorist, Sunak has delayed the ban on the sale of new internal combustion vehicles from 2030 to 2035. He defended this position on Radio 4's Today Program, suggesting that electric vehicle costs remain too high. Yet, many have argued that this delay will only push back the vital need for new advancements in electric vehicles.  


The Prime Minister has also ordered a review of the rollout of low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTN). LTNs, implemented in several boroughs across London, aim to reduce road traffic, improve air quality and encourage people to walk or cycle. Boris Johnson largely supported them under his tenure as London Mayor. Yet, their rollout has become an increasingly divisive point in wealthier, typically Tory constituencies of London where cars play a greater role in travel.  


Of course, the pro-motorist strategy has not emerged from nowhere, and I'm not talking about the Thatcher line that 'anyone on a bus over 25 is a failure'. The Conservative win at the Uxbridge by-election was largely viewed as a voter reaction against Sadiq Khan's ULEZ expansion policy. Therefore, for the Tories, it is a point where they can gain key ground against Labour. It just so happens that this strategy comes at the detriment of crucial green policies. Other policies that have taken a hit include relaxing targets to phase out gas boilers and ditching stricter energy efficiency rules on landlords. 

 

The u-turn came at a surprising time as world leaders met at the annual UN General Assembly in New York, where climate policy was a key part of the agenda. Sunak was notably missing from the occasion, and his subsequent announcement left a bitter taste. Al Gore, former US Vice-President, led the condemnation describing Sunak's decision as "shocking and disappointing" and "not what the world needs from the United Kingdom". Many officials feel let down by the Prime Minister. It has, of course, not yet been two years since the UK hosted COP26, where Britain positioned itself as a front-runner in climate policy. 


But this reaction against green policies in a bid to win elections represents a far more significant problem in politics and its fundamental ability to tackle climate change. Climate change is the perfect example of a collective action problem. The optimal outcome requires collaboration across both party lines and internationally. Yet, delaying their action is also in the party's self-interest. Why would a party threaten votes by proposing costly new technologies or job losses in non-green sectors?  


This leads to the problem of policy myopia. Parties in the UK operate on five-year cycles, with strategy and thought always primed for the next general election. But, this inherently leads to short-term thinking for short-term wins. Consequently, the issue of climate change gets put on the back burner as leaders instead focus on areas that win them public approval. For climate change to be addressed, we need a long-term strategy with binding promises to meet the ever-growing list of targets. 


For the Tories, shying away from a proactive green approach may backfire. A recent survey by polling group Survation found that 201 constituencies placed the Environment and Climate Change in their top 3 determinants of vote choice. This includes a growing proportion of blue wall seats in which 72% said climate-related policies would influence how they vote. 


With the next general election looming, panic has ensued for the Tories. The latest policy blitz and anti-green u-turn seems more hastened and ill-thought-through than a coherent strategy. Not only have the Conservatives lost sight of the growing importance voters place on climate policies, but they once again have failed to prioritise climate policy above winning elections. 


Image: The Guardian

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