Jo Swinson, fracking and social justice

| 29th July 2019
Jo Swinson, first female leader of the Liberal Democrats 

Jo Swinson, first female leader of the Liberal Democrats 

https://www.libdems.org.uk/
Jo Swinson has been elected leader of Britain's third party - the Liberal Democrats. So what is her record in relation to the environment?

Jo Swinson may promise the Earth, then - but her record raises questions about her ability and willingness to deliver.

The newly elected leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, has a chequered history in relation to the environment - which is somewhat eclipsed by her dire record on poverty and workers’ rights.

The Lib Dems elected Swinson by a margin of 20,000 votes over her opponent, former energy secretary Ed Davey, on Monday of last week. Swinson, who has worked in corporate PR, was the party’s deputy leader, and held employment and equalities posts under the 2010-15 coalition government with the Conservatives.

In May, Andy Briggs, co-chair of pro-market Lib Dem faction Liberal Reform, welcomed Swinson's election as a move to the neoliberal right after four years under more left-leaning, social-democratic leaders. Briggs applauded the former minister’s record in office, praising her for opposing energy price caps, rejecting gender quotas and supporting zero-hours contracts.

Folded

Swinson’s victory speech in London emphasised Brexit, populism, climate change and living standards. “Liberal Democrats can make a real difference,” she told the crowd, “when we take power and put our principles into practice.” She nevertheless continued to rule out coalition with Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson.

The incoming leader spoke of “a planet that is at breaking point”, adding: “We are the last generation who can act to stop catastrophic climate change, and yet the government is failing to take the urgent action we need.”

Though Swinson made climate a major campaign theme, her record on the issue proves remarkably patchy. She talks a good game on the climate emergency, and boasts of joining April’s Extinction Rebellion protests. Unlike most XR activists, however, she has taken money from fracking interests and voted down key regulations on the industry.

In July 2017 Swinson took a personal donation of £10,000 from Mark Petterson, director of Warwick Energy - a company with fracking licences across England - and a further £4,000 in January 2018. This was after she had voted against an eighteen-month fracking ban, against a review of the industry’s environmental, health and social effects and against requiring frackers to get environmental permits.

Petterson’s co-directors, John Sulley and Rob Jones, had previously paid out $48 million settling a securities fraud suit after their $2.3 billion company Independent Energy collapsed in 2000. They founded Warwick Energy just weeks after its predecessor folded.

Wellbeing

Swinson is open to concerns that she sometimes seems to support climate action in principle but oppose it in practice. In 2012 she voted to create a Green Investment Bank; yet that same year she voted against making the bank help cut UK emissions in line with the law. 

She voted for 2008’s Climate Change Act and wants to make companies report on climate risks. Yet in 2013 she opposed setting CO2 targets per unit of electricity and voted against closing a loophole on fossil fuel plants’ emissions standards.

Swinson claims she has “campaigned tirelessly to save our environment” since childhood and believes “the economy must work for the planet”.

Yet on key green issues like the badger cull, high-speed rail and renewables subsidies, Swinson has repeatedly voted with the government and against environmentalists.

In 2009 she founded a parliamentary group on wellbeing economics; in 2011 she voted to sell off England’s forests. And she has consistently voted against curbing the UK’s ballooning rail fares.

Unlawful

The MP has been consistent only in taxing flights and slamming Easter egg containers - she tabled a 2007 bill against excessive packaging. She has a mixed record on fuel taxes, and she has taken no action in relation to public control of trains and buses.

Meanwhile, social justice campaigners have condemned Swinson’s record of aiding Tory attacks on the poor - slashing housing and council tax benefits, backing the bedroom tax, cutting legal aid, slashing benefits for the disabled and out-of-work, and opposing job guarantees for the long-term unemployed.

“We have families where both parents are working full-time on the so-called National Living Wage but who can’t provide the basics for their children,” Swinson told her London audience on Monday: “I’m talking about food, school uniforms, a warm home.” The UK’s “social contract”, she added, is “fundamentally broken”.

Yet as employment minister under the coalition, Swinson opposed a living wage and froze the minimum wage for young people. Her department considered freezing or even cutting the minimum wage if the UK hit a recession.

She backed the tuition fee hikes that her party had promised to oppose - a promise she claimed to regret. She priced thousands out of access to justice by introducing employment tribunal fees of up to £1,200 - a measure Britain’s Supreme Court later ruled unlawful.

Values

Sociologist Phil Burton-Cartledge dubs Swinson a “yellow Tory”, finding she voted with the Conservative whip nearly 850 times between 2010 and 2015 - more often than senior Tories Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove. Swinson herself penned a March 2018 Mail on Sunday column demanding a statue of Thatcher in Parliament Square.

On the environment, then, Swinson’s record raises serious questions. For one, are the Lib Dems truly committed to urgent action, and how negotiable is that commitment when its leaders scent real power?

More fundamentally for twenty-first century liberals, can centrist parties sustain incremental green policies while ignoring poverty and inequality? And what happens when environmental tinkering accompanies attacks on the poor, entrenches inequality, or hurts struggling people?

Two recent cases illustrate the risks. Last April, Nick Clegg’s former policy director Polly Mackenzie provoked fury when she revealed the Lib Dems had won a trivial green policy - a 5p charge on plastic bags - by agreeing to help tighten benefit sanctions.

Carol Lindsay, the editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, expressed horror and disbelief that “such a brutal policy was traded in such a blasé fashion”, calling the decision an ignorant, “completely avoidable” mistake that “caused untold hardship” and betrayed the party’s stated values.

Jo Swinson may promise the Earth, then - but her record raises questions about her ability and willingness to deliver.

Like liberal centrists elsewhere, she will need to confront the inequality and stagnant living standards that regularly unravel market-driven environmentalism. And many will doubt that a “moderate” neoliberal party of professional middle-class supporters and wealthy funders truly has the stomach for that fight.

This Author

Tim Holmes is an 'active bystander' and also researcher, writer and editor. He tweets at @timbird84.

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