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Use your vote for maximum benefit for the planet

14th December 2022
We have only one planet, and it’s already in bad shape. So I have made my commitment to vote for a healthy planet.

It’s easy to be cynical about democracy—famously “the least bad system of government.” We’ve recently seen two prime ministers elected by a handful of people wildly unrepresentative of the population. “What use,” you might think, “is a vote once every five years?” I have lived all my life in safe parliamentary seats, meaning that my vote seems to matter not at all. Many young people report that they would prefer to live in a country with a strong leader than in a democracy. Yet your vote can count for a great deal, and I have recently seen how.

For me and many others, there is one issue that overrides all others because it represents a threat to the survival of humanity: the planetary crisis. I want to use my vote to do everything I can to keep the planet livable for my children and grandchildren. I was thus happy without hesitation to sign up for the commitment “to vote only for politicians who work for urgent action on the climate and nature.” I posted my commitment with words explaining why I made the commitment and a picture of my two-year-old granddaughter and me cooking together (below).

What I didn’t understand was what a sophisticated operation lies behind the campaign. Now I do because I’ve met the leaders of the campaign, and the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change (UKHACC), which I chair, is supporting the campaign.

Crucially the Commitment is not associated with any political party and doesn’t tell anybody how to vote. UKHACC is now a charity, and we couldn’t support any programme that was politically partial—but can support political action that furthers our charitable purpose, countering the world’s major threat to health.

The campaign is not just about elections. It is about influencing MPs (and other politicians), and what the organisers know that I didn’t know is that MPs understand how hard it is to gather specific commitments from named people on how they will use their vote. MPs will multiply these specific commitments by “eight to 12 times,” meaning that assembling as few as 50 commitments from a constituency can have a considerable impact on an MP.

MPs are graded by the campaign on a five-point scale with climate deniers at one end and those who are unequivocally committed to urgent action on the planetary crisis at the other end. The campaign concentrates on those in the middle and sends them a report showing the number of people in their constituency who have made a commitment and a map of where they live (people committing have to give their postcode). The report says that “climate change and the environment consistently rank in the top three policy concerns in surveys of the UK public” and includes a quote from a councillor that “each commitment speaks for maybe 100 people who don’t have the time or aren’t good with words.” The report also says that its research shows that over 95% of people honour their commitment.

The words used in some of the commitments are picked out with pictures and first names, but all commitments from the constituency are included without names and postcodes. The report then highlights issues that particularly concern voters in that constituency and gives the MP specific actions he or she might take. The report is well presented and transmits its information quickly, easily, and convincingly.

The reason that relatively few commitments can have such an influence is that it’s hard to get people to make a commitment. They may completely agree with the idea, but the challenge of writing words, adding a picture, and giving their postcode means that many people put off the task until tomorrow—and then never do it. People are also understandably nervous about who exactly is asking for the information. (It is, of course, because of this reluctance that MPs recognise that a few people making a specific commitment represent many more people who agree with the commitment.)

The campaign team gets around this reluctance by working with people at meetings to make commitments there and then. We will do the same at UKHACC meetings, but I urge you to make a commitment now by clicking here. We have only one planet, and it’s already in bad shape.

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This piece was originally published in the BMJ and is written by Richard Smith, Chair of the UKHACC.