Picture credit : WWF
One of David Cameron’s early and later much-derided moves was to go to the Arctic to be seen hugging a husky: I hope it won’t be seen as partisan to say that few of us felt that Cameron had a deep-seated love of huskies: we were all clear that it was symbolic. He was detoxifying the Tories – not just about harsh efficiency, but caring about the environment too.
Ultimately, though, the environment was seen as a second-order issue. Sure, if you asked people if they cared about climate change and pollution, they’d express an opinion, but they generally wouldn’t switch their votes over it. What mattered was the economy, the NHS, immigration and a general impression of competence – and we can now add Brexit.
So why are the parties suddenly working so hard on environment and animal welfare issues? Michael Gove has frankly astonished most people on the green side of politics with a series of speeches and commitments which go beyond lip-service and show a genuine understanding of the way that apparently disparate issues like climate change, pollution and factory farming interact. I know lifelong environmentalists who were blown away by this speech.
Meanwhile, the Labour animal welfare manifesto last week was Christmas come early for the animal movement, and had a media reach (defined as everyone reading/viewing media that reported it, obviously with duplication) of a mind-boggling 230 million. (Disclosure of interest: in my cross-partisan job I’ve had a lot of direct contact with both parties over these initiatives.)
There’s a reason, and it’s not only a sudden rush of green idealism. The parties have fought each other to a standstill on the big issues. The economy? The deficit has gone from urgent crisis to “Is that still a thing?” in public consciousness. Brexit? Clearly difficult and not really under British control. The NHS? In crisis for so long that many people have lost confidence that it will be fixed. Immigration? The Tories aren’t doing much, Labour doesn’t want to do much, UKIP has imploded. Competence? Much of the public doesn’t rate anyone on that score. So the parties are locked at about 40% each with no sign of movement.
Consequently, they’re starting to look at traditionally second-order issues as a way of shifting the dial. Housing, the environment, animals, student fee reforms: perhaps undecided voters will feel that there’s not much to choose on the big issues, so let’s go for the party that seems to have some new ideas on other things.
Like Cameron’s huskies, these ideas aren’t just about the subject, though unlike the husky stunt they have some genuine content. They’re also about shifting the image of parties to be seen as movements that take an interest in a wide range of subjects. And, not least, they’re a way for Ministers and Shadow Ministers in traditionally less-reported areas to gain real attention with innovative thinking.
That’s not a bad thing in our fast-changing world. Expect more of it.
(Nick Palmer was Labour MP for Broxtowe 1997-2010. He now works on animal welfare issues on a cross-party basis.)