An event organised by the Surrey Climate Commission on 28 September brought together three of the UK’s leading climate thinkers – Lord Deben (John Gummer), Natalie Bennett and Ed Straw — to ask “What’s Stopping Us Stopping Climate Change?”. This blog by Thalia Griffiths summarises the evening’s debate
The Surrey Climate Commission packed the Leatherhead Theatre on 28 September with three speakers investigating the barriers in our political system that are preventing action on climate change. The event focused on why the machinery of government is not delivering the transformation we need. Three very different speakers ultimately agreed that the urgent change we need is possible if we work together, observing that the Covid pandemic has shown how quickly and comprehensively behaviours can change in an emergency. A video is available here.
Green Party peer Natalie Bennett called for an overhaul of the existing political system, which she described as too centralised and too skewed by the power of individual ministers and the see-saw of the two main parties in the first past the post system. She outlined the problem as an electoral system that doesn’t deliver a representative parliament, plus what she termed “historical accidents from the past” like hereditary peers, and the concentration of power and resources in Westminster. This last point is magnified by more than a decade of austerity, which means local authorities often only have enough money to deliver on their statutory responsibilities and nothing more.
“We have a government that was elected with the support of about 28% of eligible voters back in 2019,” she said. “So we don’t have a parliament that reflects the will of the people, we have a parliament that reflects a tiny minority of the people.”
She described a process of policy-making where a minister is criticised for a bad morning radio interview, then realises they need to restore their status with party members and keep their leadership chances alive, so they dream up a headline-grabbing new policy, leaving civil servants to figure out how to implement it.
By contrast in most of Europe a government programme is agreed by a coalition. “So different groups of people representing typically something like 70% of the population get together and agree a programme for government with lots of people inputting. There’s not space for someone to just come up with an idea one morning and it’s government policy that afternoon.”
She threw out a succession of ideas to bring about system change, with a passionate call for greater public involvement in policy-making. A shorter working week would potentially free people for political or community action, she argued, and she called for greater use of citizens’ assemblies, citing the success of France’s climate assembly, and consultations on equal marriage and on abortion in Ireland.
“I believe every person can be a resource for change, a driving force for change to make a difference. We need to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to do that,” she said. “We need to open up the power of people.” She urged the audience: “Get together, make a decision about how you’re going to change something, big or small, and then work on delivering that change.”
Asked about how parties could work together, Bennett pointed out that coalitions were already working in local government in councils such as Lewes. “This is happening at the grass roots, we’re showing it’s possible, but it’s hugely difficult at Westminster because of the system. That doesn’t mean we can’t, and one of the things about the House of Lords is there is more cross-party working than there is in the Commons, partly because the whip is not so strong.”
Writer and campaigner Ed Straw highlighted the power of business lobbies to skew the way decisions are taken, coupled with a lack of follow-up to monitor the impact of new policies. “Where is the feedback system in government? There are 3,500 laws have been produced in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, how many of them are working?” he asked.
As a former consultant to the Thatcher and Blair governments, he has seen the workings of the system from the inside, and offered a list of proposals including changing how decisions are taken at the centre to make the process more participatory and deliberative; ensuring fair and limited party funding; removing political patronage and what he termed “institutionalised bribery”; decentralisation; and proportional representation (PR).
“Designing constitutions actually isn’t that difficult. The tricky bit is the bit in the middle, the transition,” he said. “The de-pollution, the clean-up, is not going to happen unless you’ve got a collective, participative, deliberative, engaging, ‘what do you think we should do tomorrow?’ approach to life.” But despite a gloomy view of the status quo, he was optimistic about the human ability to effect change, both through individual action and through pressing for systems change.
Do what you can – now!
Former Conservative minister Lord Deben, who led the UK’s Climate Change Committee for 11 years until July this year, offered a rather different perspective from his experience inside government. He took issue with Bennett and Straw’s calls for systems change, saying they had “no idea about what you do to get there, and climate change is too urgent for us to argue about those things”. A critic of Brexit, he also warned that if you give people a choice, they won’t necessarily choose what you want them to. “What we have to do is to use the system we have to make it work as well as possible.”
PR, he said, “might be a better system, but we’ve got to make the system we have work because we haven’t got time”. Change, he argued, must start with the individual, then the organisations they’re involved with. Local authorities should have more power, “but let’s start with the powers they do have. Surrey County Council could make a series of decisions which aren’t affected by the money, but which are a different choice.” He cited his own council, Suffolk, and its policy on not mowing verges. “It’s nothing like enough, there’s so much more to be done. But you won’t get any of it done if you don’t get the bits you can get done.”
MPs, he said, claim the climate crisis never comes up on the doorstep. He urged the audience to make appointments at their MPs’ constituency surgeries, and with the candidates likely to run against them next year, and advised them to book to discuss “a private matter” to avoid being fobbed off. He said that in his experience if constituents raise an issue, MPs listen “because that’s where the votes are coming from” — especially now, with many people unsure of how they’ll vote next year.
In terms of practical measures, Lord Deben proposed it should be illegal for newspapers to be owned by anyone who doesn’t live and pay taxes in the UK. He called for greater controls on the media, including implementing the second half of the Leveson inquiry, which should have investigated the relationship between journalists and the police, and ensuring that newspapers cannot publish lies with impunity.
He defended the House of Lords, saying that in his experience the debates were of a higher quality than in the “party-politically driven House of Commons”, and that its very peculiarity made it more independent, though he said he would like to see timetabling reforms to give more time for scrutiny of legislation.
But in other areas his proposals were much closer to those of the other speakers. He proposed a body akin to the Law Commission to assess the efficacy of selected pieces of legislation every five years, and said there was a need for a body that individuals could approach if they identified procedural barriers to tackling the climate crisis.
While policies and targets might be good, the government was failing on delivery, and what was needed was institutional change but within the existing institutions, he argued. “We have to make as much good out of the system we have because that is the system we have and we must change it and improve it whenever we have a chance.
“But in the meantime, none of us should do anything at any time without looking at it through the lens of climate change. None of our organisations should look at anything without looking at it through the lens of climate change. In the end, it’s not climate change that is the disease, it’s the symptom of the disease. Climate change shows us what we’ve done to the earth, done to the soil, done to the air, done to the sea, done to the very planet which gives us life.”
This event was the first step in a new partnership between the SCC and the Institute for Sustainability at the University of Surrey, which will seek out and implement more action on climate change. Sign up here to receive updates.
The University will be hosting an event on 1 November entitled Green Means Go: Tackling Surrey’s Climate Emergency Through Deliberative Democracy, with the SCC, Surrey County Council and leading academics.