Will the Majority Vote for the Environment? Probably Not

  • Published on December 15th, 2008

traffic in Manchester

I doubt many people on either side of the fence are surprised that the referendum on Manchester’s congestion charge resulted in a resounding “no” vote. Apart from the fact that the plan itself was a great deal more complicated than that in London, people will, simply, probably not vote for environmentally-sound measures – not now, and not at all, probably, until it’s too late. Why? Because we are basically selfish.

[social_buttons]I have no doubt that the vast majority of Mancunians simply felt that a congestion charge was an added cost they couldn’t justify, an added inconvenience they couldn’t countenance, and perhaps even a restriction on going where they want, when they want that was too much to bear.

There is also evidence – certainly on the basis of media interviews – that the “yes” case was either badly presented or was widely misrepresented by the opposition, or both. Several people interviewed on the broadcast media, at least, indicated that they wanted public transport to be improved before congestion charging came into force – which was, of course, exactly what was proposed. There was Government money promised for that very purpose. Certainly, the complaint that Manchester’s tramways had operational problems, and simply extending the network would not have been enough is a fair point, but it does not alter the fact that people were unaware of a fundamental part of the planned measures.

Public transport in Manchester could certainly be better. Until relatively recently, for example, you could only hop on a bus if you had a ticket issued by the same company – ridiculous. And as far as I am aware it is still the case that several companies run buses on the obvious and profitable routes but nothing runs at all on socially important, but financially non-viable, routes further out of town. As with telephones, the network has to subsidise expensive but important routes from the income it makes on the profitable ones. For that you need a monopoly, and a monopoly run for the public benefit. A better case for placing public transport in British cities back under local council control I have yet to hear.

But what will happen to the heart of one of Britain’s great cities? Well, that government money will now not be available for improving public transport. Congestion will get worse. People and companies will lose even more money stuck in traffic. Far more unpopular measures will be necessary to alleviate worsening conditions – and I bet there won’t be a referendum on them.

It is a sad fact that people will not, evidently, vote for measures that benefit the environment, even if they are important. Not yet, anyway. Will people ever vote for environmental measures before it’s too late? Well, as it may already be too late, the answer is probably not. We can already see governments unwilling to take necessary steps at both the national and the international levels because they are afraid of getting voted out at the next election.

What’s the solution to this? On the wider global stage, I couldn’t say. But for Britain, here’s an idea. Establish an Environmental Crisis Policy Committee made up of top scientists and other experts who know what’s really going on, committed to working out what needs to be done and how. Then all parties commit to implementing the Committee’s recommendations in full – it’s as simple as that.

That immediately takes anti-environmental selfish voting out of the picture, because whomever you vote for, Government policies on the environment remain the same. No Government would be thrown out for taking unpopular positions as a matter of urgent environmental necessity. And no party could get itself elected by the selfishness lobby by telling the electorate it would put money, or whatever else, in their pockets by cutting back on essential environmental measures.

Image: Ingy The Wingy via flickr under a Creative Commons License

About the Author

Richard Elen has been involved in alternative technology and the environment since the mid-1970s. He was a member of the group that produced Undercurrents, one of the first "AT" magazines (in fact Peter Harper coined the phrase therein). He was also a regular member of the team that produced the Climate Action Network's Eco magazine from the UN Climate Talks in the run-up to Kyoto (it is still produced today). Long a supporter of renewable energy, he is also particularly interested in the potential of virtual worlds for education, conferencing and networking with minimal CO2 emissions. He believes that the future lies in massive investment in public transport and renewables and suspects that bringing energy and communications back into public ownership is one of the few ways in which this might be achieved in the time we have left.


  • How are you going to make "all parties commit to implementing the Committee’s recommendations in full" ?

    If enough of the Electorate are against the idea, then sooner or later a party will break rank – and take the resultant votes.

    What you are suggesting is for voters to be disenfranchised in voting on Environment issues. That's fundamentally incompatible with Democracy and (if we have anything like a democracy) it is bound to fail in the end.

    N.B. Don't shoot the messenger.

  • The practice of financially penalizing people in order to encourage/force changes in their lifestyle is a difficult one to sell, and often has nebulous value in creating change. While price increases do this on a free market basis, doing this in an artificial fashion via government mandate is rarely as effective. That said, there are occasions where people simply won't change behavior until it hurts financially.

    But giving people an alternative that provides them with value, while helping to solve the problem, will go much further to solving these issues with a long term vision.

  • The problem with the proposals for manchester was that they were linked with the congestion charge. If that was not present then I'm sure a lot more people would of voted for the improvements and the reason why we can't pursuade more of those motorists on to the public transport. It would be better if businesses were closer to where people actually lived rather than all bunched together in a big city center. It would be better if people could walk to work.

    It didn't come down to selfishness on the part of the motorists. They would of voted yes to improved public transport.

Comments are closed.