A tale of two Milibands

I’ve got a rather provocatively titled piece coming out in the next issue of Political Quarterly, about two different ways of approaching climate change politics put forward by the two Miliband brothers, currently locked in a struggle for the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party.

One is promoting the idea of an ‘environmental contract’ between citizens and the state, which David Miliband developed back in 2006 when he was Secretary of State for the Environment. The other approach is to develop a ‘politics of the common good’, put forward in a speech last year by younger brother Ed Miliband.

The core of my argument in the paper is that the environmental contract/citizenship argument won’t work, for two reasons. The first is that history shows that the major evolutions in citizenship in Britain – first civil in the 18th century, then political in the 19th century and finally social citizenship in the second half of the 20th century – have all been driven by powerful groups who will gain directly and substantially by such extensions of the citizenship concept. This is not the case for environmental citizenship.

The second reason, which kind of reinforces the first, is that there is still a lot of uncertainty about how exactly climate change will affect the lives of individuals in Britain, which again undermines the idea of the emergence of an organised group pushing for an environmental contract. Maybe a relatively small number of people living in Norfolk facing the loss of their homes to coastal erosion can identify themselves as having a clear interest, but they don’t constitute a major social movement.

What is useful about the environmental citizenship debate is that it clarifies the essential nature of climate change as a global public bad, and our actions to mitigate it as a global public good.

This makes Ed’s alternative – a ‘politics of the common good’ – potentially a better bet, because it identifies the essential nature of the political problem correctly.  He takes the phrase from Michael Sandel, who we blogged on earlier this summer. The basic approach is to confront the public with the toughness of the problem and an appeal to people’s sense of collective responsibility and fairness, especially to future generations.

It may be that such a politics has a better chance of creating greater political space for radical climate policies, but it will have to take on the two great legacies of the Thatcher era – populism and materialism – which are both strongly weaved into British (and American) society. Many people don’t trust the government and no longer believe anything it tells them. Many people have bought into material consumption as a route to psychological security and social status. A politics of the common good is unlikely to get too far without some major changes in these powerful undercurrents.



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9 responses to “A tale of two Milibands

  1. It’s great that you are exploring the ‘cognitive’ or values impacts of different policy avenues here. For an interesting debate on what George Lakoff calls the ‘cognitive’ impacts of climate policy, see this piece he wrote with Joe Brewer:


  2. Are these concepts mutually exclusive (like two brothers fighting for the same job)? I don’t believe so. As a supporter of Contraction and Convergence I see both a clear defintion of the common good and from that definition a clear contract flows. Unless and until the common good can be defined in terms of equity, nobody will see their actions, whether compulsory or voluntary as necessarily fair. In the meantime national or individual self-interest will prevail, and in one of the first significant areas where the impact of climate change will be felt – food security – we will see a sprint to protectionism (and profit) the likes of which we have not witnessed in modern times. The impacts of climate change will not assist the development of what may be classed as altruistic responses.

    • andrewpendleton

      Thanks for you comment, Colin. C&C and its ilk are hard to disagree with at the level of principle, but its even harder to see how they might be implemented in today’s political climate. Personal and national interest are the overlords of failure in international processes and while many of us may wish to defeat them, we’re all in their thrall.

      I think what Matthew was getting at in this piece – and what’s at the heart of much of what we write on this blog – is that without a credible political strategy, all of our grand ideas will be as nothing. So, without an analysis of the politics and how we bring about change in all the realms that currently obstruct our progress, C&C, Mckinsey’s cost curve, WBCSD’s recent 2050 uber-scenario and other fine proposals will only ever remain theoretical.

      • But what is a ‘credible’ political strategy? If it is one based purely on the whims of the pols then it will be worse than useless – i.e. what we have now. Is it one based on inching forward, that is never pulling harder than the weakest link can bear? The irony is we have negotiations taking place under a ‘framework convention’ where the framework isn’t defined. Hence we have no reference points, no benchmarks, no discipline. Whilst that little matter remains unresolved, there can be little hope of a credible political strategy emerging. The reason we need a framework such as C&C is simply to wrest control of a process which takes as its first challenge ‘how much is this going to cost’ rather than ‘how do we put a value on carbon.’ In other words, we need a framework driven market, not a market driven framework.

  3. andrewpendleton

    Odd, Colin, as Matthew and I were just discussing the roll of public opinion. Clearly, government should not be undertaken according to polls and focus groups, but neither can politicians ignore what they say in terms of shaping how they approach and frame what they want to do.

    On the UNFCCC, I’m afraid I see it from the other point of view entirely. The Convention is almost perfect, especially in obliging parties to act according to common but differentiated responsibilities. However, the moment you begin to quantify this is precisely the moment at which the shit hits the fan. The likelihood of anything as rational as C&C being agreed is therefore very low.

    • It’s mainly because we have so far refused to quantify it that the shit is already flying through the air on its seemingly inexorable engagement with the fan.

      If we don’t overcome our cognitive dissonance we are well and truly stuffed. The political establishment have no excuses. After all, they seem perfectly capable of taking ‘tough decisions’ when there’s a slight chance of losing a AAA rating.

  4. andrewpendleton

    We’ll see about that. I rather wonder whether governments have over-estimated the political space they have for austerity. But in principle I agree; if only the bond markets were baying for rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

  5. Its now the 21st year for me of stating [and sticking to] the C&C framework that Colin presents again here. The point in the title of Colin’s book – “Too-Little Too-Late” – is the point that seems still not to have been taken by many who remain caught in the marginal arguments that still generate heat-and-no-light at the UNFCCC. Using political-realism arguments here to try and re-validate a process that still – after twenty years [!] – causes this problem faster than it responds to avoid it is error. For any entity – private or public – to settle now for the bargain that avoids taking that simple sanity-test by now abandoning altogether any effort to be governed by the measurement of that widening gap makes the error fatal.

    In short Andrew, I think Colin deserves a better grade of answer from you in the exchanges above.



    • andrewpendleton

      I apologise to both you and Colin if either of you thought I was giving rather too little shrift. But the point of this blog isn’t to try and invent the ideal world solutions, but to recognise that plenty of those exist and start to articulate a pathway from where we are now – narrow and shallow political buy-in to climate action – to where we need to be.

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