The successes of Nigel Farage and UKIP in the recent local elections have already provoked much analysis. In particular, the three main parties are now engaging in an intensive period of soul searching as they think hard about how best to counter the numbers of voters opting for the anti-establishment, anti-EU party.
A central component of the UKIP sentiment that swept parts of previously Tory dominated areas last Thursday is the collapse in trust in elites: a pervasive sense that a distant technocratic political class fails to understand the many problems affecting ordinary people. Because of this disconnection, ideas dreamt up by overpaid bureaucrats in Whitehall and Brussels cannot begin to address the nation’s woes.
The technocratic tendency can be witnessed across our politics. Environmentalism is an interesting example of both how it disempowers but also how to reconnect.
Attending international climate conferences or going on media attention-grabbing trips to the North Pole have traditionally been what politicians do in order to prove they ‘get’ green issues. But they have also failed to embed the environment in the political mainstream, meaning green issues have been allowed to slip down the agenda in recent years.
Just as we need politicians in Whitehall (and Brussels) to start engaging people in conversations rooted in their day-today experience, we also require a more popular environmentalism that can do the same.
Let us think back to the anger which followed the announcement that Defra wanted to sell off parts of our forests. The botched attempt by the Conservative-led coalition government to sell off the forests elicited widespread condemnation. There are at least two exciting political questions that emerge from thinking about the nature of this condemnation. The first one has been articulated by the political scientist Bonnie Honig. This question stems from trying to answer both why the condemnation of the forest sell off was widespread and whether this could be a potential source for a new proactive political agenda:
Hunting, woodland protection and the outdoors were presumably, in their various overlapping ways, among the values that moved diverse parties into coalition on this issue: conservationists, who value preservation, progressives who value public things, and conservatives who have a distinctive connection to a certain aristocratic or pastoral sense of Englishness. If the problem, in this instance, is that this struggle was mostly reactive, then the political question is how to take that moment of defensive politics, created by defending that threatened thing from privatisation, and turn it into a more proactive and public-things oriented mode of emergent politics that’s not merely defensive against the prominent offensiveness that is neo-liberal privatisation.
[Bonnie Honig interviewed in Juncture volume 19/issue 4]
Put simply, if the anger about the forest sell-offs tapped into a deep attachment to the ‘public-ness’ of our local and national green spaces, can we harness that to a proactive political project?
The second exciting political question is related to opportunities for creativity in statecraft. Can the process of trying to construct a proactive agenda around land, its use and ownership, and a community focused environmentalism help in the effort to change the way we ‘do’ politics?
Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP charged with coordinating Ed Miliband’s policy review has spoken of how the constraints brought by austerity can inspire creativity and innovation in policy making. The renewed interest in early years intervention and tackling the welfare bill at its root causes (known as ‘predistribution’ in some Labour circles) are just two example of such creativity inspired by fiscal constraints.
It is time for Labour to also see the constraints brought by our environmental challenges as an equal if not greater source of inspiration.
While this of course includes taking a more hands-on approach to leveraging private and public investment in decarbonising the UK economy it also means focusing more on local sources of environmental activism. It is in this spirit that the Fabian Society launches a new project looking at land, community and a popular environmentalism.
There are a number of angles from which the relationship of people to place can be harnessed to further particular environmental goals. This includes preserving green spaces; increasing the coverage of woodland in the UK; community energy; community food growing initiatives; waste and recycling programmes as well as more complex environmental planning goals such as flood plain management and environmentally sensitive house building programmes.
The integration of such goals with grassroots community activism would arguably promote a more popular engagement with environmentalism than prevailing ‘top down’ legislative approaches or appeals to individual economic interest. People do have a strong ethos of care for their communities, their neighbourhoods and their locality: harnessing this democratic spirit for a shared common life could provide environmentalists with a much more productive route to securing a more sustainable future and a more resonant environmental politics.
Over the coming months we will be convening experts to talk about the potential to better facilitate local environmental activism. But perhaps more importantly we will be engaging members of the public in a conversation taking place in a range of locations in a series of deliberative focus groups.
By engaging people in a conversation, we hope to gain a deeper understanding than before of people’s hopes and fears, how they feel about their local areas, and how to form a more productive partnership with national government.
The kind of citizenship that could be fostered by a coordinated drive to facilitate local environmental activism would help to build a lower carbon future and preserve natural resources. But it could also help strengthen a sense of deeper engagement with and control for communities over their local environments.
This may be one of many things that need to be done in order to address the anti-politics sentiment that currently runs high in our society. It just may be that a community food growing project that brings people from different backgrounds together could be one of the best antidotes to the rise of UKIP.
If you would like to learn more about and/or get involved with this project (including recommending case studies) then please contact our senior researcher Natan Doron on firstname.lastname@example.org