The former Green leader went to Birmingham to protest Conservative support for fracking. And learnt that even in their ranks opinion is shifting.
Even the Tories are asking: Why is the government backing fracking?
I was yesterday singing a variation of the classic hymn Jerusalem outside the Tory Party conference in Birmingham.
We shall not cease from singing here,
Nor shall we rest ‘till fracking’s banned.
‘Till we have kicked these frackers out
Of England’s green and pleasant land.
It felt right for the circumstances. And that reflection led me on to thinking that it really is odd that the Conservatives are continuing to back this deeply unpopular policy, one that strikes at the core of many of their rural heartlands.
The public is so opposed to fracking that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has dropped a question on it from its regular surveys.
I was in Birmingham with the 100 Women protest, joining Green Lancashire County Councillor Gina Dowding, in taking the message about fracking – and democracy – to the heart of the governing party.
Dressed as suffragettes, the women, who’d mostly travelled down early from Preston New Road in Lancashire for the protest, dressed in white, Edwardian-styled garb, clearly caused some confusion among many of the delegates.
Women’s suffrage and democracy, they were supposed to be in favour of those, weren’t they?
Many delegates were also clearly made uncomfortable with the “We Said No” chant.
Westminster overruling councils – central government riding roughshod over local decisions – doesn’t exactly fit with the Tories’ image of their own political philosophy.
With many of the delegates it wasn’t that hard to find common ground. I had a long chat with one who while we didn’t agree on the clear fact that renewables can meet out energy needs, we did agree on the need for vastly improving the energy efficiency of homes. Especially with benefits in cutting excess winter deaths, reducing pressure on the NHS and tackling fuel poverty.
For lack of time I was unable to really press him on the question as to why government is failing to act on this obvious policy imperative.
And while there is no reasoning for a new fossil fuel industry (as experts warn about the pressing urgency of action against climate change), it is the political argument that is most likely to shift the Conservative position.
The industry has made no progress in six years since it tried to get going in Balcombe, and the financial uncertainty of its position forced even the Conservative government to block Third Energy’s progress in Ryedale, North Yorkshire.
The idea that fracking could be made a “permitted development” has so enraged the Tory district council of Ryedale, it is now taking legal action against the proposal.
On the train back to Sheffield, I found that a Tory MP Lee Rowley, who has in his constituency one of the hot spots of current resistance to fracking at Marsh Lane, had also been in Birmingham, saying much the same thing that I’d been thinking. He won his seat in 2017 against a pro-fracking Labour MP, Natascha Engel, so he’s acutely tuned to the issue.
With three men last week put in prison for non-violent direction action, opposition to fracking is only likely to strengthen and become more vociferous – as the action at Preston New Road yesterday morning demonstrated.
On the ground, this is a fight the Tories, and the frackers, are clearly going to lose.
As Rowley said, the government has entirely failed to present any kind of argument for fracking. It really should quit while it is behind, obeying that old political rule that if you’re in a hole, don’t keep digging.
It is surely an appropriate slogan when it comes to fracking.
Natalie Bennett is the former leader of the Green Party and writes regularly for Left Foot Forward.
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