No-one wins in the race to the bottom: five reasons to be cheerful this Party Conference season

Over the last three weeks, all visitors to the UK might well be forgiven for thinking that the titan of British business is marigold manufacturing.

Whether it be David Cameron rolling up his sleeves to mop up Labour’s mess or Ed Miliband preparing his hard hat for some serious Britain (re)building, the message from this party conference season has been clear: add a bottle of one nation disinfectant to your bag of electioneering props party people, because it’s time to clean up the country.

It’s back to basics, belt and braces. Land of hope and Tory. Making work pay. Paying people to work. Cleaning up politics? We’re through the looking glass now. It’s time for a reality check, for rigour and strategy. We’re all in this together, after all.

With more of the pervasive political rot exposed in recent weeks by the oddly Shakespearean Campbell/McBride doubleact, the unions up in arms, Nigel Farage tinkering away at the fringes (at times, literally) and the various wings of the Lib Dems locking their philosophical horns on everything from plastic bags through to pornography, never has the average politician’s share price been so low.

This is perfectly normal. With a year and a half to go until the next General Election, this year’s conference season followed a standard holding pattern, with the party leaders lobbing a few grenades across the bows before all out warfare takes hold next year. It’s time to air the dirty laundry, both inside and out of the various party HQs and make sure that everyone knows that the other team aren’t worth trusting with the petty cash tin at a coffee morning, let alone the UK economy.

But is Britain really as broken as our politicians suggest? I’d argue not. Ever the optimist, I’d like to take a moment to celebrate some of the political breakthroughs we’ve seen this year.

  1. The IF campaign – over 50,000 people turned out in London and Belfast, hundreds of MPs of all parties were lobbied by their constituents, with 70 attending the launch and even more taking action by writing to ministers, asking parliamentary questions or attending local events run by supporters.
  2. The G8 – thanks to IF campaigners, both civil society and parliamentarian, land grabs and tax and transparency made it onto the international agenda in spectacular style. The UK Government has also kept its promise to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid – something development organisations have been campaigning for since the 1970s.
  3. The EU Accounting and Transparency Directives. Sound dull? These magic pieces of legislation will ensure that companies publish what they pay for developing countries’ precious natural resources, a serious step towards transforming a system rent with conflict and corruption. MEPs of all UK parties, bar UKIP, cooperated on this crucial legislation and can be proud of the role they have playing in unearthing the truth on corruption.
  4. Rape as a weapon of war will never be accepted. Last week at the United Nations, 120 countries promised for the first time to join British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, in his campaign to stamp out impunity for rape and sexual violence in conflict situations. In his party conference speech, Hague explained that his aim is also to change global attitudes and work towards full economic, social and political rights for women, no matter where they live.
  5. Action for those affected by the Syrian conflict. The debates in the British parliament were a tortured, Westminster-ified affair, but since then our politicians have worked to provide an extra £87 million of aid to the UN World Food Programme, on top of the extra £100 million of aid pledged by Nick Clegg at the UN General Assembly last week, taking British aid to Syria up to £500 million, our biggest ever relief effort. And then yesterday, the UN Security Council agreed on a statement urging the Syrian authorities to grant access to the country for humanitarian agencies so that they might finally get help to those who need it the most. There’s still far more to do, but a lot that the British people can be proud of.

With two months left to go, these are just five of the many reasons we can be proud of 2013. Can Britain do better than this? Undoubtedly. But should we be buying into the headlines which tell us that our society is in pieces that it would take all of the King’s (read Queen’s) horses and men to fix? I would still argue not. Instead, let’s look at the achievements of 2013 and build upon them in the year ahead, instead of swallowing whole the daily headlines of recrimination and despair. After all, as Ed Miliband pointed out during his conference speech, no-one wins in the race to the bottom. 

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We’re all in it together – but not in the way you might think

I went on my first demonstration when I was seven.

It was 1992 and John Major’s government had announced yet more education cuts. I lived in a small town where no-one had very much really and this was yet another thing in a long line of off-the-cuff policies that restricted potential and kept us in our place.

So we took to the streets. I clutched my mother’s hand as we huddled in the shadow of the war memorial in the centre of town, others holding lanterns and homemade banners. We sang hymns and clapped our hands. My memory of my first foray into activism is fairly foggy, but I can quite imagine that the local policeman stopped by to have a chat and a cup of weak tea. Beyond tame, particularly when you consider the far more impressive story told by one of my schoolfriends of being held aloft during the poll tax riots.

My point here, other than indulging my own memories of a precocious childhood, is that while the bobble-hat wearing, banner-toting group of locals in that small Somerset town didn’t even come close to stopping the tide of cuts which crashed over us so forcefully in the weeks and months that followed, we had stood up for what we believed in. Everyone wrote letters to the Education Secretary, (including me, receiving a broadly sympathetic but generally patronising response a month later) and spoke to the local MP.

Why had we taken the time to protest? Because education was, and still is, one of a number of hugely important political issues which quite rightly define the outcomes of elections. After all, democracy is about being free to question and speak out on the issues that concern you, whether you agree with the Government of the day or not.

Last week, MPs voted to plough on with the ‘Transparency, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration’ Bill, or the Lobbying Bill. It was introduced a couple of days before the summer parliamentary recess and aims to crack down on illicit influencing of politicians by introducing a ‘Register of Lobbyists’. This all sounds pretty positive – as a lobbyist myself, I’m frankly disgusted that so-called corporate ‘in-house lobbyists’ can lay on the hospitality, tip those in power the wink and pave the way for big business to get what it wants.

The thing is, it would be perfectly understandable if illegal lobbying by corporates was the main focus of the Bill – although incidentally, the Register of Lobbyists bit doesn’t go far enough as it only deals with the lobbying of Government Ministers and their Permanent Secretaries by lobbying consultants, whereas MPs, Peers and Special Advisers are still fair game – but it isn’t. The Bill has two other parts, dealing with ‘non-party campaigning etc’ and trade unions respectively, which is when things start to get slightly sinister.

Part Two of the Bill introduces new, strict rules which will very likely impose significant restrictions on the campaigning of organisations like Tearfund, as well as much smaller organisations and community groups, such as churches, for the twelve months leading up to a General Election. Our expenditure on awareness-raising activities like media and events would now be covered, as well as logistical things like transport and the costs of employing our staff.  The Bill also lowers how much organisations can spend on these activities by 60%-70% – if we spend more, we could face prosecution if these activities are deemed to be ‘for election purposes’. A little will now have to go a very long way. On top of that, the Government plans to aggregate the spending of campaigning coalitions (like the IF campaign), so every involved organisation or agency will likely have to account for the spending of the whole. The upshot? It’s not just the big organisations that will be affected, grassroots campaigners might also feel the force of the Bill’s bile too. In fact you could say (if this goes ahead), we’ll all be in it together. Ironic, really.

Let’s be clear, there are existing rules on non-party campaigning, namely the ‘Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000’ (PPERA). This means that UK charities, NGOs and other voluntary organisations can’t engage in election-bending activities like the so-called US super-PACs. Thanks to the new legislation, in-house corporate lobbyists will still be able to have their quiet dinners and behind-closed-door chats in those all-important pre-election months, while civil society will be restricted by how much we can call the Government up about it. In short, as it stands, the Bill won’t clean up politics or properly right the wrongs we’d hoped it would.

21 years after my first demonstration, I’ve lost count of the number of campaign cards I’ve signed, events I’ve organised, protests I’ve attended. I’ve seen ground-breaking policy change (the Arms Trade Treaty anyone, 0.7, debt cancellation?) and I’m only one person. What would it mean if we all stopped taking legitimate action because we were worried about breaking the rules or getting the organisations we support into trouble?

Today, MPs will be taking part in the first of three days of Committee Stage of the Bill. This will be heard as a Committee of the Whole House in the Main Chamber, rather than in a Public Bill Committee of a few MPs poring over the Bill line-for-line. With the Prime Minister’s G20 statement and a tribute debate to Prince George on the agenda preceding it, the opportunity for discussion during day one of Committee Stage looks like it’ll be limited. Right now, from where I’m standing, it all seems pretty bleak.

Want to take action? Click here for a Tearfund Nudge.

A briefing on the Lobbying Bill is here.

“Ray Bans and the rest of it” – why aid works

This morning I woke up in what appeared to be the eighties. In those first blurry moments, I wondered how long I’d been asleep. Not only was the ‘racist van’ topping the headlines again, but UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom was instructing Radio 4 listeners on why he believes it is a travesty that UK taxpayers fund aid to ‘Bongo Bongo land’. Coupled with the link sent to me by a friend to the band ‘Scott and Charlene’s Wedding’ (who married in 1987 fact fans), I honestly did feel like I’d somehow managed to sleepwalk my way into the DeLorean.

While I’m writing this, I’m clicking through as many online atlases as I can, trying to locate ‘Bongo Bongo’ land. Maybe I’ve got the spelling wrong but I’m not having much luck finding it really, maybe because I failed to secure a GCSE in geography, or (as Mr Bloom might contend), as a lady of ‘baby-making age’, I should be at home cleaning behind my fridge and not worrying about such matters.

I’m not going to launch into a detailed, worthy defence of aid here, mainly because people like Godfrey Bloom will stick like glue to their misinformed and frankly offensive opinions, regardless of how much evidence exists to the contrary. And judging by Jim Naughtie’s fairly resigned response to Mr Bloom’s tirade, coupled with the reaction on Twitter, I’m guessing most people are aware that his appraisal of international aid is up there with the Harry Potter series.

However, what I did find mildly interesting was how convicted Mr Bloom was that aid somehow goes on “ray ban sunglasses, apartments in Paris, Ferraris and all the rest of it”.

Every time aid gets mentioned, I count under my breath until the cries of ‘corruption!’ rise up. It’s a bit like bingo really – charity begins at home (tick), all the money goes to dictators (tick), they blow it all on space programmes (tick), HOUSE! – but what people like Godfrey Bloom have failed to notice is how much work has been done and is still being undertaken, to ensure that aid goes where it’s most needed and to support citizens in developing countries in building their capacity to hold their own governments to account for its expenditure.

Back in June, the EU passed unprecedented legislation to ensure that multinationals publish what they pay for developing countries’ natural resources, which for some, amounts to seven times what they receive in aid. A significant breakthrough, which will have a serious impact for people living in some of the world’s poorest countries. The next step will be to ensure greater budget transparency, so that citizens all over the world can access information about how their governments are spending their taxes and investments. We hope that this will be considered by countries attending the Open Government Partnership annual meeting in the Autumn, currently chaired by the UK.

But going back to the EU Accounting and Transparency Directives. Eighteen MEPs voted against the groundbreaking transparency legislation in June and Godfrey Bloom was one of them. I’m honestly baffled that someone who opposes UK overseas development assistance on the grounds of corruption, would also openly counter legislation which not only paves the way for far greater transparency in our international and business relations, but might also one day end the need for aid entirely.

Aid works. It really does. In the last ten years, more than 50 million children have started going to school in sub-Saharan Africa, while deaths from measles have fallen by nearly 75%. I could quote and quote and quote statistics. And yet 2.3 million children still die every year from malnutrition. I’m not sure I want to know what Mr Bloom thinks about that, or what he’d say to the 2.3 million mothers who will mourn the desperate loss of their children this year, all because they didn’t have enough food to eat. But I hope that the Great British public drowns out his racist ramblings with furious compassion for those who are worse off than us, because it’s what we do best.

Lobbying: let’s get our House in order

My name is Rosanne, and I’m a lobbyist.

In the coming days and weeks, I fear that like the many bank workers before me who were entirely blameless for the financial crash, I’m going to be tarred with the same gnarly brush of sleaze and corruption whenever I happen to mention what I do for a living. Like religion and politics, it’ll be another thing not to mention during dinner, particularly ironic when you notice that I’m a parliamentary officer working for a Christian organisation.

Yet again, lobbying has come under the spotlight as an ignoble profession, attractive to those in search of power and a route into government, or those exiting the Whitehall scrum for a quieter office and final salary pension. As The Times undercover journalists clearly demonstrated this weekend, even at the epicentre of our democracy, there’s a lucrative market for the opportunistic.

Lobbying is about democracy. The thing that people forget is that MPs spend their time either on Westminster turf (in the House, in their office, in meetings, in the tea-room), or back in their constituency. If their constituency is outside of London, then they spend a lot of time on the train, possibly delayed and working their way through piles of casework queries from those people who elected them. I cannot imagine what it must feel like to bear the burden of countless people’s real dilemmas, homelessness, payday loans gone wrong, the threat of deportation. I can quite imagine lying awake at night, worrying and worrying and worrying. On top of that, MPs have to have an opinion on absolutely everything, from animal welfare to acute heart problems to energy policy and if they can’t answer immediately, are derided for being ‘out-of-touch’. Good MPs, and I maintain there are very many, literally carry the weight of the world around on their shoulders every single day.

Without meaning to appear sycophantic in my portrayal of the average MP’s life, the point I am making is that whatever you think of them, MPs are awfully busy and cannot, (however much we would like them to), keep up to date with absolutely every issue that concerns civil society, both nationally and globally. Which is where lobbyists come in. Put very simply, we keep MPs and peers in touch with civil society. We discuss the issues with them and provide the policy and research that they need to make a fuss in parliament, to ensure that they are standing up for the people who they were elected to represent. Yes they might ask parliamentary questions and yes they might decide to take action on an issue, but that’s because they believe it to be right, not because they are going to get paid. And we call them out too – lobbying is not about cosying up to power but more about challenging those who have the influence to use it in a way that can benefit civil society, whether it’s addressing poverty in the UK, or tackling global hunger, or fighting for greater equality for women.

For this reason, I am in favour of a statutory register for lobbyists. I have nothing to hide, after all. The European Parliament already has one and the political world hasn’t imploded. I’d find it interesting to know how many other interest groups are spinning through the doors of Portcullis House every day, if only as a demonstration of our bright and vibrant political culture. Transparency is a key issue on the UK Government’s agenda for the upcoming G8 summit and revisiting the issue of aggressive corporate lobbying is one of the ways we can show that we’re getting our house in order, perhaps a challenge for the Government’s Anti-Corruption Champion, Ken Clarke MP.

Clearly, the British political system is still cracked in places that require a full overhaul, and a spotlight on those bad apples, both parliamentarian and lobbyist, is no bad thing. But it’s far too easy, and lazy, to demonise us all.

Why the local election results matter to development NGOs – potholes, planning meetings and Nigel Farage

The election count is the last hurdle on the road to success. It follows months of campaigning, knocking on (often hostile) doors in the waning light, drafting leaflets and bemoaning the invention of letterbox bristles. The checklist of local campaigner photos – fine specimens are to be found at glumcouncillors.tumblr.com – of the candidate pointing sternly at graffiti, dog muck, potholes(!) is completed and photoshopped in.

But most importantly in those months leading up to the election, campaigning makes it clear to local people why the candidate wants to be a local representative, the reason why they are pounding the streets night after night, sitting in the public pen at mind-numbing planning board meetings in the hope of raising an application issue with the elected members, and spending their time trying to improve matters in the area they love so much.

So it was with last week’s county council elections. Having followed elections over the years in more detail than is possibly rational, I normally have a good idea about how things will pan out. But Thursday night’s elections were the first time I’ve ever been uncertain about the outcome. Completely.

And the reason, now commanding column inches in every major UK newspaper, was Nigel Farage and his UK Independence Party. 

To be honest, I’m not sure why the rise of UKIP has come as such a surprise. The tremors have been felt for a while. Back in 2011, UKIP started to show up in the ballot boxes during local elections, a little like a pitch invasion after a cup final. Entertaining, but completely inconsequential. But in the parliamentary by-election in February of this year, whole streets in Eastleigh were suddenly going purple. Voters interviewed by the various news channels were saying that UKIP are the only party they can trust, that it’s time for honesty and action. 

Honesty and action. Whether we like it or not, no politician or party is going to be able to give us any good news. It’s tighten-your-belts time and we all know it. But the “we’re all in it together” rhetoric of the months following the historic 2010 general election is taking more and more of a beating (particularly as we’ve found out that maybe the ‘all’ and ‘together’ bits weren’t that straightforward in the first place). So communities of geography, gender, belief, and employment are increasingly pitted one against another.

Rich political soil then for a party like UKIP, whose often puzzling policy is based upon exalting the bygone world of post-war Britain and (somewhat paradoxically), battening down the hatches against any outside influence.

So what does this mean for international development? I would suggest, perhaps controversially, that we have some lessons to learn from Farage and co. 

Firstly, Farage keeps it simple. Policy is delivered genially, as if to friends in a country pub somewhere. No talk of predistribution, bedroom tax or deregulation. Instead, it’s making a change, improving living standards, leaving the EU. UKIP do not alienate through rhetoric. This of course, may well be down to the fact that we are yet to hear the more detailed aspects of UKIP’s headline policies – it will be interesting to see exactly how clearly Farage suggests the UK’s books should be balanced, or how standards should be raised in failing schools.

Understand the society we’ve got. I love that I work in a sector that idealises, working towards a fairer and safer future for the world’s poorest people. That said, we live in a country where a large number of people are (at least on the surface) not happy about the UK reaching its 0.7% aid target, that want to withdraw from the EU due to human rights law and think spending money on climate change adaptation is a waste. Instead of preaching to the converted and worrying about the lack of interest from huge swathes of the population, what would happen if we acknowledged people’s hostility to our cause, tried to understand why and worked to convince them of our position that way? In short, appeal to the society we have, not the one we wish we had.

Focus. We might not know what they think yet about the details of health policy and welfare reform, but everyone in this country knows what UKIP stands for – no more EU membership, getting rid of foreign aid, tooling up UK defence, protecting our ‘green and pleasant lands’ and restricting immigration. Very clear. It’s hard not to toss in the kitchen sink when talking about global poverty, purely because poverty is not simple. But in these straitened times, finding ways to make global poverty relate to the national and local remains one of our biggest challenges.

So back to the count. It’s 3am and the candidates are ready to go home. Normally, an election in such large wards would mean hours and hours of verification and counting. This time round, some candidates found that whole boxes only contained a handful of votes. 33% of the electorate turned out to vote in my home town. I’m not going to analyse why here because it’s a special kind of science, a PhD. But part of the reason so few people came out to vote is that however cliched, they need something they can believe in, messages that makes sense to everyone, whatever their occupation or intellect. And for some people, the voice they’ve always wanted finally has an incarnation in Farage, the self-made scourge of complicated, highly politicised messaging.

 

Thatcher, global poverty and the need for a climate catalyst

I was born in 1985. It was the year that Eastenders first graced our screens, the first mobile phone call was made and 13-year old Ruth Lawrence achieved a first in mathematics at Oxford, the youngest British person to ever get such a degree or graduate from the university.

It was also a year of rioting; with three million unemployed, a riot broke out in Brixton after an accidental shooting of a woman by the police. One person died, 50 were injured, countless were arrested.

And it was the year of Live Aid and the launch of Comic Relief.

One woman dominated the headlines when I was growing up. With remarkably coiffed hair and neat suits, she stood up in the House of Commons every week and took on the opposition at a time when very few women, even fewer mothers, could ever consider standing as a local Councillor, let alone an MP. Despite this seemingly miraculous turn of events, my mother wasn’t a fan – she was devastated at the death of David Penhaligon in 1986, later taking me to a rally when the leader of the newly formed Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown, visited our little Somerset town.

With the news of her death, doubtless the media will now be given over these next few days to reflections on Baroness Thatcher’s life. We’ll learn more about her than we ever knew. We’ll be played old newsreels of her most fiery political exchanges, of Meryl Streep’s attempt to channel her energy. The left and right will fling Iron Lady-loaded grenades at each other across the parapets of Fleet Street and twitter and tumblr will be flooded with increasingly uncomfortable parodies.

But for me, the most surprising thing to note about Baroness Thatcher, (or Mrs Thatcher as she was then), was that she was one of the first western leaders to make her concerns clear about climate change. At the Second World Climate Conference she said this:

“Our ability to come together to stop or limit damage to the world’s environment will be perhaps the greatest test of how far we can act as a world community. No-one should under-estimate the imagination that will be required, nor the scientific effort, nor the unprecedented co-operation we shall have to show. We shall need statesmanship of a rare order.”

Barnstorming stuff. And she didn’t stop there. Later, she said:

“It would be absurd to adopt policies which would bankrupt the industrial nations, or doom the poorer countries to increasing poverty. We have to recognise the widely differing circumstances facing individual countries, with the better-off assisting the poorer ones”.

Margaret Thatcher gave that speech on November 6th 1990 (if you’re not keeping up, I was just five years old). Now on my way to 30, and the UN climate talks heading into their 19th summit in December, I’m terribly sad that developed nations are still dancing around the issue of how to finance climate change adaptation for the poorest countries.

Back in 2011, world leaders sat down together and set themselves a deadline to come up with a legally binding agreement on climate change by 2015, including agreement on ways to fund climate change adaptation. In 2013, they are still a long way from achieving this, despite there being a number of options available, including a shipping levy, for raising the $100bn a year desperately needed by 2020.

2013 is the year for the UK to step up. We’ll be hosting the G8 summit of world leaders as well as a special Food and Hunger Summit which will hopefully address the root causes of poverty which mean that one in eight people go to bed hungry every night. What’s more, the Prime Minister is playing a lead role as the co-Chair of the panel advising the UN Secretary-General on the follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals. All opportunities to show real leadership on a global scale, to recognise the impact that climate change is having and will continue to have on the world’s poorest people if we fail to act. Whatever you think of her transformative and often destructive social and economic policy (and believe me when I say my opinions are strong), Mrs Thatcher recognised this. She recognised this 23 years ago.

Which leads me back to my childhood. Despite being born in the eighties, I really don’t consider myself to be one of Thatcher’s children. Instead, I guess I’m more of a Live Aid child – I’ve been brought up knowing about the significance of the Government’s commitment to deliver 0.7% GNI as lifesaving aid and been frustrated time and time again when it hasn’t been honoured. I still can’t quite believe it’s finally going to happen now. Then last week came the news that world leaders have struck a deal on a global arms trade treaty, an historic moment that as a child I never believed would come.

So it just goes to show that change can happen. I honestly believe that we can come up with a fair deal on climate change, one that benefits the world’s poorest people and makes sure that they can adapt to the onslaught of extreme weather. Right now, it just needs political will and a catalyst. Something I imagine Mrs Thatcher knew at least a little about.

Conferences and climate change: why I’m not giving up on the Lib Dems

September is the time for new beginnings. School children crush auburn leaves with their shiny new shoes as they head off to start another term, students embark upon the frenzy of freshers week, albeit not the first time for some, while the media reawakens from its summertime slumber, all silly season stories abandoned. As the year stretches before us, it’s time to talk of fresh pages, renewed resolve, the welcome chance to start again.

Starting again has been the strapline for 2012. It was only a year ago that we were all transfixed, both in horror and embarrassment, by the scenes of wanton looting and violence erupting around the UK, at times drawing unfortunate comparisons with Danny Boyle’s apocalyptic 28 Days Later. A year on, and the same director charmed us all with his dreamy interpretation of Britishness for the Olympics opening ceremony, leading to a summer of patriotism, pride and community spirit.

With so much positive change, and possibly (dare I suggest it) the sort of change we can believe in, what next for our politicians? As the Party Conference bandwagon drew into blustery Brighton last Saturday, all eyes were on the Liberal Democrats as they made their pitch to voters everywhere. As the junior partner in an often uncomfortable coalition, they have been faced with tough decisions, as party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg seems to reiterate almost daily, while journalists and political pundits everywhere are falling over themselves to douse their 2015 electoral prospects with scorn.

But I’m not writing the Lib Dems off yet and here’s why. However the coalition climate is changing, the Lib Dems remain clear on climate change: that it is having an increasingly dramatic and harmful effect on communities in developing countries and we need to ensure that we act now. During the course of the conference, the party passed the motion ‘International Cooperation on the Environment’ which called for the UK Government to take a lead on creating a more sustainable economy and cleaner environment, pushing other EU countries to adopt the UK’s carbon emission reduction targets, for the UK Government to work with the G77 to develop Sustainable Development Goals on food, water and energy and to reform the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). As Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey put it, the Lib Dems ‘are not for turning’, on the issues of climate change and the green economy.

Tearfund will be attending all three party conferences and hosting events on climate change and corruption, in partnership with other organisations. In Brighton, we joined the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum in St Paul’s Church, for a well-attended debate on ‘How to deliver climate justice in tough economic times?’ chaired by Sir Alan Beith MP and featuring speeches from Duncan Hames MP, Fiona Hall MEP, Tearfund’s Head of Policy, Laura Taylor and CEO of A Rocha UK, Herb Enmarch-Williams.

I’ve attended far too many events in which politicians wax lyrical about climate change without focussing on its impacts or identifying the urgent need to take action, but on this occasion I was genuinely encouraged. Our panellists spoke openly and honestly about the imminent threat that climate change poses to communities globally and the impact that it is already having on the world’s poorest people, before discussing the action that needs to be taken to effect change.

The problem is all too predictable. World leaders have pledged to deliver climate finance of $100 billion a year from 2020 (so far, so good), but there is still no indication as to where this money might come from. At the moment, the money is coming from the aid budget which is diverting money away from other important development initiatives, like increasing access to education, improving provision of water and sanitation and health services. It is clear that we need to find a source of finance for climate change adaptation. But in tough economic times we cannot expect taxpayers to dutifully pick up the tab, whether or not we believe that globally, we’re all in it together.

One option, which a number of the panellists touched upon, is the carbon pricing of international shipping. Hardly a headline topic it seems, nor something that might be condensed down into a clever marketing slogan or knowingly trendy ad campaign. But nevertheless, what it lacks in style, carbon pricing more than makes up for in substance.

The fuels used by the international shipping industry (called “bunkers”) are currently untaxed, even though shipping is responsible for around three per cent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. The development of an effective and fair, market-based mechanism would both curb shipping emissions and raise finance to meet global commitments on climate change action. Once a rebate for developing countries is taken into account, around $10 billion a year could be raised as a contribution to meeting the $100 billion promised for climate action. At a time of economic difficulty, focusing on a sector that is currently untaxed globally and also contributes to curbing global carbon emissions, would be fair and environmentally sound. It’s a viable option and an opportunity which, while the tipping point for catastrophic climate change looms like the iconic iceberg, we cannot afford to ignore.

So back to new beginnings. If 2012 was the year of starting over, 2013 has the potential to be the year of real change. With the UK taking the helm of the G8 presidency, now is the time for our Government to show real global leadership, to be relentless in pushing for action on climate change and a meaningful solution to the climate finance conundrum. Carefully constructed speeches are one thing, but we’ll only ever judge our parliamentarians on their actions. At a time when public support is wavering and political tensions are high, the Lib Dems have the chance to show what they stand for, to be a party of meaningful action. So do the Lib Dems have it in them to be brave in the face of opposition and really fight for meaningful action on climate change? And will they be unapologetic for their determination to ensure that climate action is not derailed by political point-scoring and short-termism? The signs are very encouraging but for now, at least, they have a long way to go.