“Vote Blue, Go Green” is the new slogan of Great Britain’s Conservative Party, unveiled in April before local elections that saw the Tories gain ground on Prime Minister Tony Blair’s beleaguered Labour Party. Linking the Conservatives’ traditional color, blue, with the green of environmentalism reinforced a message that David Cameron, the 39-year-old Conservative Party leader, has been stressing since he was chosen this past fall as the Tories’ new standard bearer: This is not the Conservative Party of old.
In one of his first official acts as party leader–facing off against Blair during Question Time in the House of Commons–Cameron chose to echo complaints by Britain’s environmental groups that Blair talks much but does little about climate change. (Blair, who once called the Kyoto Protocol “not radical enough,” has pledged to reduce Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by 2010, but his government now admits it will fall short of that goal.) Ben Bradshaw, the Labour Party’s environment minister, fired back at Cameron, charging that the Tories have made “no clear commitments on climate change” and “need to set out new policies, not platitudes.”
“David Cameron is trying to out-Blair Blair,” says Sir David King, chief scientific adviser to the British government. King, whose warning in 2004 that climate change poses a threat more serious than terrorism helped fuel public concern in Britain and beyond, adds, “Cameron is repositioning the Conservatives to capture the middle ground, and there is no question he sees the middle ground as dealing with climate change.”
Whether Cameron’s rhetorical repositioning will be matched by real policy shifts remains to be seen. But a greening of the Conservatives would mirror a broader trend in Northern Europe, where the right-of-center parties governing Germany, France, Denmark and the Netherlands all support firm action against climate change. Germany and Denmark boast two of the world’s most extensive programs of alternative-energy development, especially from wind power. The Netherlands is already preparing a national plan to adapt to the rising sea levels and increased flooding that climate change is projected to cause in years to come. France played an essential behind-the-scenes role at the 2005 G-8 summit, blocking the Bush Administration from watering down the final agreement’s declaration that the science is no longer disputable.
The climate change debate in Europe is much less politicized than in the United States, and there is wide consensus that impacts are already being felt–for example, in the disastrous flooding of the Elbe and Danube rivers in 2002 and the heat wave that killed an estimated 31,000 people in France, Spain and Italy in 2003. Public concern has grown so strong among elites and ordinary citizens that political parties have little choice but to respond. Britain’s Conservatives saw they had to develop their own position because they recognized that Britons “are going to hear about climate change every week for the foreseeable future,” explains James Cameron (no relation to David), vice chair of Climate Change Capital, a London-based financial company that invests in emission reductions worldwide. Just as Republicans in California cannot get elected if they are seen as weak on the environment, so conservatives in Northern Europe must at least look green if they hope to govern.
The British Conservative Party has “a massive image problem,” says James Morris, a pollster who ran focus groups for the Labour Party before the last general election, in 2005. “They are seen as uncaring, old, nasty and out of touch. So they need to rebrand themselves…[by] picking a symbolic issue, the environment, to shift how people think about the Tory Party in the long term.”
Peter Ainsworth, the Conservative Party’s shadow secretary of state for the environment, denies that “Vote Blue, Go Green” is merely a ploy. “The emphasis on environmental issues comes as a result of the growing awareness that we may be living on borrowed time, and we’re addressing that as any responsible party should. If it is electorally advantageous, that is good,” says Ainsworth. He adds that it is “difficult to say” how this green messaging affected the May elections: “The Labour Party had a series of difficulties leading up to the elections [including a sex scandal and the unpopularity of the Iraq War], and no doubt we were helped by the government’s own misdemeanors.” But the Tories’ advance was not simply a function of voters’ distaste for Labour, Ainsworth argues, for the Tories gained more than four times as many seats as Liberal Democrats. By mid-May a poll by the Guardian and the research firm ICM found that support for the Tories had risen to 38 percent, the party’s highest rating in thirteen years, as female voters in particular voiced increased support. Labour, meanwhile, polled 34 percent and the Liberal Democrats 20 percent.
There have been some glitches in the Conservatives’ new embrace of green consciousness. Cameron was photographed bicycling to the House of Commons one morning like a good green commuter, but trailing him was his government car–an unfortunate necessity, he later explained, because of the heavy boxes of paperwork he has to carry. And Ainsworth concedes that “the substance isn’t there yet” on green issues. Still, he pledges that the Tories will announce a comprehensive program by year’s end, following a policy review overseen by John Gummer, former environment minister and Kyoto Protocol negotiator, and Zac Goldsmith, editor of Ecologist, a British environmental magazine. “We are looking for all the ways we can find–using tax, regulation, incentives and above all the market–to encourage green behavior and discourage nongreen behavior,” says Ainsworth.
Saleemul Huq, head of the Climate Change Group of the International Institute for Environment and Development in London, says that Cameron’s motives for greening the Tories are unimportant. “I don’t care,” says Huq, a leading activist on climate and poverty issues. “Cameron is reading the writing on the wall. He sees this is where the votes are. He’s not leading; he’s following. I want all politicians to do that.”