It’s still the economy, stupid, just not as we know it

With the UK barely a year away from a general election, signs are growing of a challenge to conventional thinking

James Carville’s aphorism from the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign has come to define politics on both sides of the Atlantic. The global economic slowdown and the era of austerity in public finances have redoubled the sense that the voters only care about ‘pocket-book’ issues. Yet new thinking is challenging that convention, and from some surprising sources.

In early February a group of UK conservatives, led by Tory MP, Laura Sandys, published the results of a 2020C policy commission called Sweating Our Assets. This argues that we focus too much on growth in demand, measured by rising GDP, and on trying to grow labour productivity, which means using less labour for the same or more output. Instead, 21st century economic policy should be about resource efficiency, creating more value with fewer resources and, crucially, less waste – which they have dubbed ‘profitability’.

Among their eye-catching proposals is the suggestion to shift responsibility in government for waste from the environment ministry, Defra, to the economics ministry, BIS. That sounds like a modern day reworking of the famous Yorkshire saying – where there’s muck, there’s brass.

Hot on their heels came another attempt to position conservatives as conservationists. The end of February saw the publication of a set of essays Responsibility & Resilience: What the Environment means to Conservatives. Among the 14 international contributors are former New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, former World Bank chairman, James Wolfensohn, and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Interestingly, the business contribution came from Europe: a trio of knights – Stuart Rose, Ian Cheshire and James Dyson – together with the ubiquitous Paul Polman.

My own contribution to this growing debate comes in a few weeks’ time, when I launch with Liberal Democrat colleagues an update to our Green Book thinking. Last year we published a book challenging liberals in politics to put ‘future-proofing’ the economy at the heart of their manifesto making. At a debate in Westminster in March, Juliet Davenport, chief executive of Good Energy and David Nussbaum, chief executive of WWF-UK, will respond to our latest proposals.

This debate is starting to get interesting. The question is: are the voters listening?

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