Sunday, February 05, 2006

Fuel Taxes

Apologies that I seem to be heading over the same subjects again and again. I will put a post up about the cultural phenomenon that is the Super Bowl sometime early next week, but as things stand I've had a stinking cold over the last few days and haven't had the chance to write the piece I want to about it.

Today I'm going back to the topic of environmental liberalism. The Apollo Project linked earlier this week to an article in the Guardian about differences between Lib Dem activists and Lib Dem voters.

Members tend to have the same sort of views as voters. But the one great exception to this environmental taxation:
One difference between members and voters concerns the environment. Fifty-three per cent of members supported an increase in taxation on motorists in order to curb pollution. Lib Dem voters, by contrast, are distinctly cool on the idea that car owners should pay higher taxes.

Now, Chris Huhne is keen to tell us that the Lib Dems are by far the greenest of the three main parties. I don't see any particularly obvious reason to disagree with him on this one, so I'm willing to run with that as a basic assumption.

If that assumption is true, of course, it follows logically that Lib Dem voters should be the most receptive to environmental policies. There are, of course, a multitude of reasons why the LibDems were supported at the last election by voters. Some, like me, couldn't bring themselves to back a Tory manifesto that bordered on racism, and felt stuck between a rock and a hard place. Many votes were undoubtedly garnered by anti-Labour protest votes, from the left who were angered over top-up fees and Iraq. But the Lib Dems do seem to spend more time talking about the environment than other parties have.

What the study shows, of course, is that even Lib Dem voters are much, much cooler on the idea of increased taxation than activists. So, whilst playing to the green lobby may be an excellent idea in terms of winning a leadership election, how will it actually help their electoral prospects?

Peter at the Apollo Project is probably right when he says this:

I don't think this means that we should not advocate higher fuel taxes. But it does imply that we should beware of getting too far ahead of them.

The difficulty is, what are the alternatives? In many areas of the country, if you don't have a car, then you simply aren't employable or able to have much of a social life. Even in Darlington, a town which was once hailed as having the most buses in the country, it is very difficult indeed to make a journey to, say, Middlesbrough, by public transport. Taxing motorists off the road would simply be unfair in the North East. There is all too often no other option than to use the car. To increase expense without a readily available alternative is unreasonable.

So if there is to be any increase in environmental taxes, then the only way it can possibly work is by creating material incentives and by providing alternatives. Not by using the tax revenue gained from environmental taxes for other purposes. In that sense, the Ming Campbell campaign is far more reasonable in what it is saying than the Chris Huhne campaign.

The deeper problem for the Lib Dems, of course, is that there appears to be disconnect between the party and their own voters on this issue. As much as I hate the approach personally, David Cameron has been very savvy in the way he approached environmental policy. The nasty image of the Tories was changed without giving any specific details which would then be knocked down. I still am unconvinced that the British population as a whole is ready for an increase in environmental taxation.

People shouldn't forget the only time that William Hague ever led Tony Blair in the polls was as a direct result of the fuel crisis. People begrudge having to pay over the odds for petrol, especially when Britain's fuel taxes are already high. Lib Dem activists may be convinced climate change is going to have catastrophic consequences. But if they go about remedying them in a clumsy manner, then they will end up causing more harm than good.