Party conference season: will politicians continue to think short-term?

Despite promises, all three political parties have failed to win the war for green growth, but there’s plenty they could be doing.

The party conference season is almost upon us. Each September assorted politicians, activists, lobbyists and campaigners decamp to the seaside and spend the week together shut up in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms rather than enjoying the fresh air.

This year all three of the main Westminster-based parties have serious questions to address before they face the electorate again in just 20 months’ time. With the economy remaining the central issue, will they continue to dangle short-term and simplistic enticements in front of increasingly sceptical voters? Or can they instead find the inspiration to articulate where our future prosperity can come from and spell out the decisions needed to get there?

Starting with the coalition parties, their promise back in 2010 to “boost enterprise, support green growth, and build a new and more responsible economic model” feels sadly unfulfilled. Credit where it’s due: the Green Investment Bank has been broadly welcomed, even with limited funding. But the promised road map for green growth turned into a looser “enabling the transition” document, roundly criticised by the House of Commons and campaign groups alike.

The current reality is that George Osborne’s dash for (shale) gas has banished any lingering images of David Cameron’s pre-election photo opportunity with the huskies. The Liberal Democrats meanwhile have focused on tax cuts for the low paid and on promoting the energy-saving Green Deal. Whatever tactical battles they’ve fought on the environment, they have failed to win the war for green growth to be the central economic strategy of the government.

For Labour, a year ago Ed Miliband was making interesting observations about predatory capitalism and the need to learn from the deregulatory mistakes of the last government. Since then he seems to have been diverted into seeking a clause IV moment on union funding. While Ed Balls has landed many blows on the failings of austerity, he has failed to articulate a credible long-term alternative.

The view from business

Sadly, too many people in business seem content to let Westminster politicians play the game of retail politics, typified by tit-for-tat exchanges at prime minister’s questions, if that avoids any wholesale intervention – interference as they see it – in the business of running a business. Yet one big lesson from the global financial crisis and resulting recession was the dangers from laissez-faire government strategy.

Thankfully, thoughtful business leaders know they need governments to create the framework in which they can invest and innovate. That includes the CBI, whose report last year, The Colour of Growth, set out a powerful case for the potential that green business offers. In an era of resource constraint, rising costs and shifting economic power to the global east and south, away from northern economies in Europe and the US, business growth won’t be sustainable without business and government working together.

In response to these fundamental challenges, what should concerned business leaders be asking of our politicians, if sustainable growth is to become a reality? Here are five actions that my experience in government and business have taught me are top priorities.

Five point agenda

1. Finance for the industries of the future, don’t just rely on the Green Investment Bank or wait years for it to gain real borrowing powers. Use the majority stake in RBS to drive loan and equity investment in medium-sized firms with potential to create and sustain the jobs and taxable revenues of the tomorrow.

2. Certainty for investment in energy reduction: with clear and binding decarbonisation targets, firms will make their own investments in energy efficiency. The UK government must champion a 2030 target for Europe as a whole, setting aside the recent tussles over the energy bill, as the CBI has argued.

3. Fiscal incentives for closed loop waste reduction: with increased taxes on landfill and lower VAT on products that have reuse and recycling built into their design, the UK can move faster towards a zero waste economy. Work by retailer, B&Q, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation shows what can be done, even without incentives.

4. Extend the “polluter pays” principle to long-term health impacts: if producers had to pay for damage caused by their products in their manufacture, use and end-of-life treatment, companies promoting sustainability would gain an immediate advantage. The UK needs to learn from the Environmental Protection Agency in the US on using the law as a driver of change.

5. Harness the power of marketing to promote sustainable consumption: levy a small surcharge on advertising (as the Advertising Standards Authority already does) to create a public education fund to help shift wasteful attitudes, with exemptions for commercial advertising that meets green marketing guidelines.

Thoughtful business leaders could do worse than slip this five point agenda into their back pockets, in case they happen to stumble into party conference events this autumn. The window to influence election manifesto promises and future government action is rapidly closing.

This article first appeared in Guardian Sustainable Business

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