Flushing away the old image
Sir Ming Campbell posing with an organic loo was not the best look for the Lib Dems - but that was then and this is now. New leader Nick Clegg does some straight-talking on green issues, but John Alker would like to see the party take a clearer line on the role of the environment
I'm accompanying Liberal Democrat leader Clegg on a whistle-stop tour of EcoBuild, last month's behemoth exhibition for the sustainable built environment in London.
The reference is, of course, to the photo of poor old Sir Ming Campbell pointing at an organic loo in a green home at the last party conference. The captions wrote themselves.
You get the impression that things are different under Clegg's leadership. The gaggle of staff that shepherd him around seem upbeat and professional. The man himself looks pretty tired - but the hard work is apparently paying off. EU Treaty difficulties aside, the opinion polls are showing a significant Lib Dem recovery, with percentages back up into the 20s. This was last achieved under Charles Kennedy.
We're in architect Bill Dunster's full-scale zero carbon home that has been built inside the Earl's Court venue.
"It's fantastic, isn't it!" exclaims Clegg. The three-bedroom structure, complete with solar PV and trademark ventilation cowels, will set you back a very modest £150,000, including construction, as long as you've got planning permission.
We also drop by the UK Green Building Council stand, where FSC-sourced timber is pointed out to him. "Oh, I know about that," he flashes back. In the European Parliament, he drew up the first EU action plan against the trade in illegally logged timber, and advocated reforms to World Trade Organisation rules to support environmental treaties.
Clegg is soon taking part in a question and answer session with James Naughtie and a small audience at the mini seminar theatre at EcoBuild. He is again talking up the use of tariff exemptions to encourage the global trade of environmentally sustainable goods. As former adviser to the EU Trade Commissioner, Leon Brittan, you can understand why this interests him.
He comes over as likable, genuine - and somehow manages to turn the fact he is clearly no expert in environmental policy into a positive. "I don't think politicians should be paragons of virtue," he says.
"I've done a few of the obvious things - try and use the car less, turn down the heating - but I find some things more difficult, as most families do."
The relationship between individual, government and business is something of a theme.
Bemoaning the hypocrisy which, he says, can prevent individuals taking action, he relates a story about a friend. "She was carefully cutting down on water use, putting the Hippo in the cistern to save a litre of water, and was absolutely incensed when there was a leak from the water mains in her street that wasn't fixed for ages." Uh-oh, toilets again? I don't dare look at CJ.
Later, I ask him how big a problem it is that there is a lack of trust in government and politicians, and scepticism about the motives of big business at a time when we need strong action from both to cut carbon? "A lack of trust is important, because government needs to be seen to be leading the way on climate change.
"Our response, as a society, to the challenge needs to be in the form of a covenant - between individuals, business and government - to curb our CO2 emissions."
"The latest figures show emissions from households falling, demon-strating families are making a real effort, but their good work is being wiped out by emissions from transport and business. Our overall emissions are changing very little."
Clegg is quite bullish about the need for both carrots and sticks to give incentive to green behaviour. But I ask whether this sits uncomfortably with a philosophy of small government where possible, and an emphasis on individual freedoms.
"No, there can be a 'liberal environmentalism', the core belief being that a clean and healthy environment - such as clean air - has a value that conventional measures of wealth do not measure.
"Ideologies that attach prices to environmental goods and services harness the logic of the market to the preservation of the environment, such as our green tax switch. These tend to be ideologies largely from liberal environmentalists. This is also closely allied to the polluter-pays principle."
We get onto the politics. He cites a poll that apparently shows only 6% of the population list climate change in their top three concerns.
This intrigues me, because The Guardian claimed recently that Clegg asked his shadow cabinet colleagues to list three areas they thought the Lib Dems should focus on in the run-up to the next election. Every one of them listed the environment, except the leader himself.
I challenge him that he's reacting to the 6% figure and shifting the Lib Dem emphasis in order to cater to this, which is why we haven't really heard much from him on the environment in his first couple of months as leader. It's a charge he denies, unsurprisingly.
"Not at all, in fact we have been very vocal on topical issues such as new nuclear build and airport expansion. There has been a very important change to the Liberal Democrat shadow cabinet to reflect the importance of environmental issues, with our environment spokesperson also taking on the role of energy spokesperson. In government we would establish a department for energy, environment and transport to enable a more effective approach to environmental issues."
It's not exactly a rallying cry, and it's hard to get away from the fact the Conservatives have squeezed into Lib Dem territory. But Clegg is quick to distinguish between "rich rhetoric" on the environment and the detail of the main party's policies.
"We're the only party to be advocating a zero-carbon Britain by 2050," he points out.
For this to happen, Clegg recognises the need to make the most of the "massive potential" for emissions reductions in existing building stock. OK, it doesn't take a genius to figure this out but, to be fair, the Lib Dems have reams of policy proposals here.
"Our warm-homes policy is a scheme which provides loans for households - and not just those on benefits - to make their houses more energy efficient, and then repay those loans as a top-up to their energy bills."
It's based on the German experience of a similar system.
Clegg says we have to get away from the environment being perceived as a middle-class issue, "particularly when so many of the solutions, such as reducing energy bills through better insulation, will actually benefit those on lower incomes".
So does he believe he can tackle social injustice and environmental problems together?
"We can do so by understanding that in order to address environ-mental justice we need to tackle social justice as well.
"It's all very well to expect people to take time and interest in helping the environment. But often pensioners will be more concerned about paying their energy bills, and families will be worried about getting food on the table."
Clegg gives pleasingly straight answers to straight questions. Nuclear? "Extremely sceptical, particularly of the economics." Heathrow's third runway? "Absolutely not."
Further airport expansion elsewhere? "I couldn't, hand on heart, say never - there might be a case."
Welcome though this directness is, I'm getting the distinct impression that Clegg hasn't yet decided on the role that the environment will play under his leadership. Earlier this year he pledged to "break the two-party system" within two elections, so he has invited pressure on himself.
The Lib Dems have for so long been head and shoulders above the other parties on environmental policies, I think Clegg must be desperate for them to be seen as more than a sort of elaborate think tank with the freedom to say what they want because they'll never make it into power.
It would be understandable if this meant accepting that the parties had achieved something of a score draw on the environment, and seeking to push other policy areas to the fore. But I think this would be to miss an opportunity.
Rather than treat their radical climate change policy as something to be nervous of, I'd like to see the Lib Dems develop a clearer narrative on the role of the environment.
By the time you read this, Clegg will have given a keynote speech on the environment to the Green Alliance. I'll be interested in seeing whether we get a sense of where the environment fits into their broader economic strategy, social policies and view on Britain's role in Europe.
When the Daily Mail is campaigning against plastic bags, there is clearly an appetite - or at least an acceptance - among voters that lifestyles must change.
Whereas David Cameron's "vote blue go green" mantra is often met by scepticism, the Liberal Democrats have a proven track record on green issues.
And, in Clegg, they have a leader who can make a connection with people and find a place for radical policy in mainstream politics.
Just as long as he stays away from those organic loos.
John Alker is public affairs manager, UK Green Building Council