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Monday, 23 October, 2000, 21:35 GMT 22:35 UK
Labour: A green government?
greenpeace demo outside downing street
GM protest comes to Downing Street
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

When it took office in 1997, the United Kingdom's Labour party undertook to be "the first truly green government ever".

The verdict now is that Labour is doing not badly, but nowhere near as well as it had promised.

The problem is simple. Neither the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, nor the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, has shown that they care about the environment.

So there will be unusual interest in Mr Blair's first speech on the subject since he entered Downing Street.

But if, as reported, he uses the speech on 24 October partly to lambast green campaign groups, he will have misjudged the reality.

There are bright spots in Labour's record. It will probably meet its international commitments to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

Affection

It is committed to enacting the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, which will give new protection to the country's best wildlife sites.

The Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, is acclaimed by most campaign groups as effective and sincere.

cars queueing for petrol
Transport is getting worse
They feel affection for his boss, the Environment Secretary John Prescott, despite his failure to do much to unblock British transport's clogged arteries.

The campaigners think Labour is getting the message (which Mr Blair is expected to reinforce) that taxation policy must reflect green priorities.

It is moving faster than its predecessors to encourage less polluting energy.

Graham Wynne, director of the RSPB, said it should do more: "The UK should reinforce the lead it has taken in the international climate change debate by taking more action at home.

"I would love to see a massive boost to the renewable technologies of the future - offshore wind and solar, for example. We ignore them at our peril."

But the one issue above all that sets Labour and the campaigners at each others' throats is the introduction of genetically-modified (GM) crops.

Friends of the Earth (FoE) say the Government (Michael Meacher apart) "has consistently shown itself to be a partisan supporter of the biotechnology industry".

Limits of science

"Mr Blair has intervened personally, under pressure from President Clinton, to support GM crops and food", say FoE.

Reports of Mr Blair's speech say he will accuse anti-GM campaigners of putting "dogma and prejudice" before science.

That is to miss the point. Rigorous science, conducted dispassionately, is one thing.

But many people, including some who believe that GMs will be needed in a hungry world, think the Government's trials have been farcical.

watervole feeding
Watervoles will gain from the Countryside Bill
Andrew Simms, of the New Economics Foundation, told BBC News Online: "Given the haphazard and blundering way the Government has carried out the trials, how can it now turn on the greens?

"For a Government which operates by casting frightened glances over its shoulder to see who's carrying the biggest club, it's a bit rich to accuse environmental groups of taking an unscientific approach to risk management.

"This speech sounds like an exercise in shooting the messenger, a misguided attempt to appease Middle England."

Eloquent silence

The Government feels aggrieved that the environmentalists did not leap vociferously to its defence in the recent protests over high fuel duties.

Its own total silence on the case for high duties - to discourage vehicle use for the sake of the climate and public health - was all too eloquent.

The environmental campaigner Jonathon Porritt, who advises the Government, last week said it was failing to provide leadership.

Paul Jefferiss, director of the Green Alliance, co-hosts with the CBI of Mr Blair when he makes his speech, told BBC News Online: "We hope to see more political muscle.

"What we haven't seen so far is real political support for good departmental initiatives."

Some voters will never like policies which society needs. Until Mr Blair accepts that, the greens will remain a handy target.

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See also:

16 Oct 00 | Talking Politics
Labour attacked on environment
26 Sep 00 | UK
The tale of two trials
14 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
Science 'not enough' to allay fears
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