Will the arrest of Caroline Lucas in Balcombe be our El Alamein where the frackers are stopped in their tracks, or will it be more like Julius Caesar’s advance through Gaul, where powerful vested interests eventually crush all opposition after momentary reverses? Caroline has certainly raised the profile of the issue, making the first possibility less remote than it was. But it is intriguing that Balcombe is where she should have achieved this. It might be thought that the respectable residents of Horsham parliamentary constituency, which at the last election gave Francis Maude (Conservative), a comfortable 11,000 majority over a Lib Dem nearest challenger would hardly welcome a self-proclaimed left wing firebrand with a track record of getting arrested in places where she had no personal connection, for passionate beliefs they are in the main unlikely to share with her. Surely their only concern is that this threat to their idyll should happen somewhere else?
That may possibly be true of some, but once upon a time, in 1989, the Green Party polled 15% nationally in a European election. The Party’s best result was 24.5% – in Sussex. The Conservative vote there was also one of their highest. In fact, up to and including that election, the Green Party vote had been more or less directly proportional to the Conservative vote in all national elections. That has never happened since. Why not? Up to 1989 the only fact most people knew about the Green Party was that it was for the environment. Some may even have known that it was formed in response to ‘Limits to Growth’, which addressed the threat posed by continued economic growth. The publicity which the Party gained enabled it to explain some of its policies. Fatally, it became clear to places like Balcombe, where voting patterns do not seem to have changed markedly, that saving the planet for their grandchldren would entail a degree of redistribution, and without a fuller explanation than the media would allow, the prosperous burghers of Balcombe were not yet ready for that.
Why should they be any more ready for it now? Let me remind readers that that one in four 1989 Green vote from Balcombe came before they thought their water taps might start emitting gas. It is still the leafy suburbs where you are more likely to hear unease about retreating Arctic ice, or the increasing frequency of extreme weather events. A letter in the Financial Times on 22nd August points out that due to methane leakage, fracking may well be dirtier than coal in terms of CO2.
But briefly, I have to be Devil’s (Cuadrilla’s) Advocate. As the Financial Times regularly points out, fracking is already an established industry in the USA. If nothing else changes, the protests will merely drive the economic activity, and hence prosperity, elsewhere. From a short term perspective, that view is absolutely right. Although the notion that fire stations and old people’s homes must close because people are not spending enough on cars or in newly-built shopping malls is clearly fatuous, what is too often overlooked by many who think (as I do) that a steady state economy should become the norm is, is the significance of the Tragedy of the Commons (see my blog page). Although we could, with a more communal wealth-sharing ethos move to a steady state economy world wide, what no one can do in the short term is put themselves at a competitive disadvantage. How to bridge that chasm?
My answer is a step at a time. First, the thought experiment. And this is where the hitherto conventional residents of Balcombe may come into their own. Are they concerned only for their back yard, or are they beginning to think through the implications of simply continuing with a policy of economic growth? The Citizens’ Basic Income is based on the abolition of means testing. I have covered this in many blog posts, but I mention it here simply to point out that if Balcombe really wants to lift the threat to their neighbourhood, or the wider world, a system which stops taxing part time workers and low earners at a higher rate than bankers will have to be a part of the package. No need to frighten them with threats (as they would see it) to smash the capitalism on which they think their prosperity is based.
I am aware that the foregoing will not be congenial to many Green Party members, but I must now turn to them. I have been described as an ‘Aristocrat’ for mentioning that I am almost a founder member. It was meant as an insult, but I can offer a precise definition: a Green Party Aristocrat is anyone who joined before 12th May 1994, even if their membership lapsed. That was the date on which John Smith, the then leader of the Labour Party, suffered a fatal heart attack. The Labour Party also died as a meaningful visionary political presence. Apologies to anyone who was too young in 1994 to whom this may not apply, but prior to that date, it was reasonable to assume that anyone who joined the Green Party had some idea of its founding ideals – the combination of global sustainability with global social justice. This entailed (still does) for example acceptance of the need to address population, and hence migration issues, which had hitherto only been approached with a right wing agenda.
So it was no surprise that after the accession of Tony Blair, Green Party membership climbed at a faster rate than previously. I have been describing the Party as an ‘Old Labour refugee camp’. The majority of the new intake are genuine enough, and most think of themselves as combining sustainability with social justice, but in addition to seeing population or migration as something only enemies mess with, they generally see the destruction of capitalism as a necessary prerequisite to achieving Green ideals. I discuss in my blog post on 6th July why I think this is not the best strategy, but the main relevance here is the gulf between two sets of people who think of themselves as Green: Old Labourites – and some residents of Balcombe, and the leafy shires generally.
The next part may offend some readers. I ask only that you read to the end before demanding any apologies. In its 40 year history, there have been several instances of what seemed like attempts to derail the GP, some more easily identifiable as such than others. There was the recall of Sarah Parkin in 1990. One of her accusers subsequently stood as a Social Democrat. There was a deliberate attempt at a public hustings in a European election to discredit Mark Hill, by a then Green Party member who later re-joined Labour. A major row in Wales over links with Plaid Cymru could have been purely a matter of principle.
But these were minor by comparison with what is happening now. Let me follow the logic. Anyone who tries to undermine the Green Party does so for reasons which are cogent for them. Anyone who has joined the Party from the Labour Party has a dilemma. Labour might be a disappointment, but look how dreadful the Coalition has turned out to be. Does it not make sense as a strategy to discredit the Green Party, so as not to split the vote and get the Tories out?
Look what happened in Brighton. Nationally, an extremely nasty government has put all councils under a squeeze, obliging them to cut services and generally create hardship for the most vulnerable. The alternative is to have their funding cut. Perhaps Conservative administrations will have done this with equanimity, but where are the protests about the large number of Labour councils quietly doing what they have no alternative but to do? To my knowledge, only Brighton has been targetted. It is less than honest for Labour supporters to target Jason Kitkat, whilst leaving Labour administrations elsewhere alone, but the letter calling for Cllr Kitkat’s resignation was signed by Green Party members. In passing, although I am a bit mystified by Caroline Lucas’s position, I can only assume that just as Cllr. Kitkat was in an impossible position, so she felt was she.
I am not defending what the Brighton administration did as desirable, but just in case there is a grain of truth in my worries, can I suggest that rather than trying to ensure that Labour does not lose votes to the Greens, there are a lot of people (or their parents) out there who voted Green in their millions in 1989 instead of voting Tory. A better strategy would be to get them back.
One idea which has been mooted is that the anti-frackers should apply for licences in Cameron’s constituency. Osborne’s is actually in an area where it might be feasible. We could offer Cuadrilla no outside opposition in those areas, unless the MP came out against fracking. Which reminds me. where was Zac Goldsmith whilst Caroline was getting arrested? Although he is very much a bête noir among the post 1994 GP membership, we should be on the same side if we are ever going to save the planet.