Who should you vote for in the UK general election if you care about climate change?

By Mat Hope

Well, the Green party obviously, right?


Not necessarily. While the Greens may score the best on environmental issues including climate change, the UK’s weird electoral system makes things that much more complicated.


There are two main issues you need to consider alongside what the parties are promising on climate change when choosing who to vote for: where you live, and what you want your vote to do.

Once you factor these into your considerations, it’s a much murkier picture.

First past the post

I’ll go through the voting permutations in a minute. But it’s important to first recap the ground rules of the UK’s very particular system. So, as briefly as possible, let’s go back to school.


The UK’s electoral system is known as first past the post. That means the party with the most seats once the votes have been counted is invited (by the Queen; yes, really) to become the government.


To determine the biggest party, the country is separated into constituencies or ‘seats’, each with one MP. In the UK, you don’t vote for the prime minister, you vote for an MP, knowing their party leader will become prime minister if they win the most seats.The candidate with the most votes in any seat, even if it’s less than 50% of the vote, becomes an MP.*


If no party gains more than 50% of the seats, they can ask another party to join them in forming a coalition government – just as David Cameron’s Conservatives and the Lib Dems did last time.


The main problem with this system is that, like the US presidential elections, the overall majority (in terms of the percentage of the population that votes for a party) doesn’t matter a jot.


It also means the vast majority of votes don’t really count, as there’s only a handful of seats that are genuine contests between more than one party. For instance, where I live, the Labour candidate has a huge majority, and all the polls suggest the incumbent will keep his seat, so it’s really unlikely, arithmetically at least, that my vote will count towards who gets into government.


This may seem like a bad thing, particularly since this election is set to be extremely close. But it actually opens up a lot of options for what I can ‘do’ with my vote. Especially if, like me, your vote is likely to be decided on a single issue.


So, if you care about climate change, who should you vote for?


Fortunately, Carbon Brief has already done a lot of leg work for me in collating the parties’ climate change promises in this handy grid. In the finest journalistic tradition, here is my guide to how you should vote if you care about climate change, based almost entirely on – sorry, derived from – Carbon Brief’s guide (with a little added analysis).


1. Vote for the Greens

The Green party, unsurprisingly, make the biggest promises about tackling climate change. If you could choose a government purely based on which party would likely do the most to tackle climate change, you would choose the Greens.


They promise to strengthen the UK’s legally binding emissions reduction goals under the Climate Change Act, increasing the target from an 80% cut by 2050 to a 90% cut by 2030. They are also very much the party of renewable energy, promising to make the UK’s energy system zero carbon without the aid of nuclear power, though they support CCS as a transition technology. They would also end fossil fuel company tax breaks, and promise to close all coal plants by 2030.


So there you go, ladies and gents, the winner of this climate change election is… the Greens. Except, of course, they won’t win. And you voting for them won’t make it so.


If you live in Brighton and maybe Norwich, go for it. You may end up with a Green MP. Everywhere else, there’s a strong argument that it is a wasted vote.


2. Vote for Labour

So if not the Greens, then who?


This election is going to be a straight shoot-out between Labour and the Conservatives in terms of who is going to be the biggest party. So you could vote ‘tactically’ and pick whichever is the better on climate change between those two.


In that case, vote Labour, hands down. Back to the Carbon Brief grid…


Launching Labour’s manifesto, party leader Ed Miliband said “[T]ackling climate change is an economic necessity and the most important thing we must do for our children, our grandchildren and future generations.”


Labour says they will set a legally binding decarbonisation target to “remove carbon” from the electricity suppy by 2030. Labour also pledges to create a million green jobs, and continue to support the growth of onshore wind.


Labour seemingly wants to depoliticise the UK’s increasingly vicious energy politics by creating an energy security board to oversee the delivery of the government’s plans. That’s perhaps ironic since they could, probably fairly, be accused of starting the bickering with their pledge to freeze energy bills.


The Conservatives, in contrast, have seemingly ruled out implementing a binding decarbonisation target. They’re also explicitly pro-fracking and anti-onshore wind. The main thrust of their manifesto is that they’ll try to meet the UK’s emission reduction targets as cheaply as possible.


It’s unlikely you’ll be in a seat where Labour and the Conservatives are competing directly. But if you’re in a seat that could go to Labour or a party other than the Greens (and arguably, even then), the climate change vote is for Miliband’s crew.


3. Vote for the Liberal Democrats

But say, for some mad reason, you don’t want to vote Labour. Well, I suppose you could vote for the Liberal Democrats.


That’s perhaps not as crazy as it sounds.


The Liberal Democrats are seemingly conducting their campaign on the basis that they’re neither Labour nor the Conservatives. What they ‘are’ is still a bit vague, but they’re definitely, definitely not exactly the same as Labour or the Conservatives. And they will totally keep their promises this time, they promise.


The Lib Dems are set to get an absolute kicking on Thursday. But if you care about climate change, there could be a good reason to vote for them. Namely, they may well end up being the make-weight in a Conservative-led coalition (again). And, arguably, they actually did a pretty good job at anchoring the Conservatives somewhere near climate change policy sanity last time out.


The Lib Dems’ climate change policies are pretty similar to Labour’s. They promise to implement a decarbonisation target, support some nuclear power, allow well-regulated shale gas, and create 250,000 new green jobs.


Many political insiders consider Ed Davey, a potential future party leader, to have done a pretty good job in trying conditions as energy and climate secretary. It’s possible that the Lib Dems could keep that portfolio in any new coalition government.


So, if you think the Conservatives are going to be the party to form a government, possibly with the Lib Dems, it may be wise to try and get as many of Nick Clegg’s lot involved as possible.


4. Vote for UKIP

Just kidding. Don’t vote for UKIP.


5. Vote for the Greens (yeah, I know i’ve already said this)

But say you feel uneasy voting for a party just because they might, just might, make another party less crazy, what do you do then? Well, we’re pretty much back where we started.


Climate change is not that high on any of the parties’ political agendas. In which case, it may not matter who ends up leading the government. Whoever it is will probably only tweak the status quo rather than overhaul it, which is arguably what’s needed if we’re serious about tackling climate change.


But one of the good things about the UK’s political system is that there’s some power in opposition, too. A good showing across the national polls would help the Greens’ profile, and ensure their representatives get more screen time to try and force the governing parties’ hands, even if it doesn’t actually get them into government.


So why not vote for the one party who you can be pretty sure will continue to bang the drum on the climate change?


Oh. Because they won’t win. And voting for them could indirectly lead to a Conservative government. I forgot.


Well, return to Go…And best of luck making your mind up come May 7th.


*Note for US readers, we don’t have a separation of powers between the legislative and executive in the UK. So if the US operated on a similar system, Obama could have remained a senator while also being president, basically.


Mat Hope is a commentator on climate change politics and communication and an Associate Editor at Nature Climate.

First published at Climate Hope.  

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