Tories accused of 'shallow' support for green agenda after just four party candidates sign up to Friends of the Earth climate pledges campaign
David Adam and Damian Carrington , The Guardian
The depth of support for green policies in the Conservative party came under severe scrutiny today with the revelation that almost none of their prospective parliamentary candidates backed the simple environmental pledges of a voter-led campaign.
Just four of the 635 Conservative candidates contacted gave their support to a quartet of pledges put to them by supporters of Friends of the Earth (FoE). In contrast, two-fifths of Liberal Democrat candidates and one-fifth of Labour candidates backed the pledges.
"It is extremely disappointing that only four prospective Conservative MPs have backed our action plan for tackling climate change," said the executive director of FoE, Andy Atkins. "David Cameron must do more to convince his party of the urgent need to cut climate emissions."
Simon Hughes, the Lib Dem spokesman on energy and climate change, said: "One of the things that this election campaign has highlighted is just how worryingly shallow support for the green agenda is in the Tory party. Despite Cameron's photo opportunities, when tested, the Tories have failed to show any commitment to green issues."
Greg Clark, shadow secretary of state, told the Guardian the criticism was "off-beam". The Conservative party had considered the pledges but decided the "open-ended" spending commitments in them made them unsupportable, meaning the comparison with other parties was unfair. Asked why candidates from other parties had backed them, Clark's press officer said it "was quite a foolish thing to do."
Martyn Williams, FoE's senior parliamentary campaigner, said: "There has been much post-expenses talk of MPs needing to represent their voters rather than central parties. Our supporters want to know if their prospective MPs will back policies they think are vital to tackle climate change. Many have seen the manifesto policies – but they want their future MPs to go further."
He added: "They have a right to lobby their candidates. Surely a "big society" that lets you set up your own school if those provided by government are not to your liking, should also see local candidates able to have their own views on policies voters want them to support."
Thousands of FoE supporters contacted their parliamentary candidates to ask them to support four pledges: a strong and fair international agreement to tackle climate change; a local carbon budget for every local authority; investment in switching to a low-carbon economy; and tackling the major greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation caused by the UK's dependence on imported feeds for livestock.
While less than 1% of Tory candidates agreed, 182 of the 446 Lib Dems contacted did so, along with 96 of the 479 Labour candidates.
Andrew Smith, former Labour minister and candidate for Oxford East, said: "These results show the contrast between Labour candidates urging maximum ambition on climate change and Tory candidates who are either uninterested or sceptical. A Tory government would threaten the low-carbon transition: sceptic MPs, no to onshore wind, on the fringes in Europe."
The Conservatives have also drawn fire from green campaigners over plans to boost oil drilling in UK waters. According to a green paper on energy policy published in March, a future Conservative government would "implement a tax regime that offers sufficient incentive to keep existing fields open as long as possible, and which also makes new exploration on the UK continental shelf attractive". It added: "In addition, we will improve the incentives for exploring and developing marginal fields ... opening up new areas, including in the seas west of the Shetlands."
The Tories also announced plans to "streamline" the process by which companies are given permission to drill. "Like taxation, licensing of exploration needs to be adapted to today's circumstances."
A Conservative spokeswoman said it was unfair to single the party out because Labour and the Liberal Democrats had also pledged to maximise production from UK waters. The Lib Dem election manifesto says it will "keep the tax regime and allowances that apply to the oil and gas industry under review to secure the maximum long-term benefit to the UK economy".
Ruth Davis, Greenpeace chief policy adviser, said the Conservatives had gone further than the others. "Whilst all the parties might have been sniffing around the issue, only the Tories have made a pledge to provide tax breaks and simplify licenses." The area to the west of Shetland, which the Conservatives highlight, is important for its whale and dolphin populations, she said.