The twilight of anti-coalition opposition

After the raging days of resistance, the left has become quiet, resigned and accepting.

The heady, raging days of resistance to the coalition government are over. In its place, a sense of weary resignation has begun to pervade the British left. The protests of 2010 now look to be a distant memory, whilst the crowds drawn by the March for the Alternative and the student movement have returned to the business of getting on with their lives.

Overcome by the unrelenting nationalist marketing surrounding the triple-whammy Wedding-Jubi-Lympics, we have shrugged, accepted it. If the whipping up of patriotic spirit has finished, for now, it is a tribute to conservatism that the rebirth of British pride can be heralded whilst the things to be proud of are systematically cut. The best that can be said of more cynical quarters is that our jaded eyes are turned to the new series of Downton. Resistance is dead, long live resignation.

So it should be lucky that there is a designated, official party in opposition. But Labour under Ed Miliband feels like a resounding disappointment. Locked in political stasis, the party lacks the bravery and the unity needed for an honest return to the left. Ostensible disagreement with the worst excesses of austerity masks an underlying agreement with the essence ofcCoalition ideology: cuts, economic deregulation, the maintenance of the status quo. Labour should be a rallying point for organised anti-coalition resistance. This current opposition appears to have lost the will for it.

At the same time, well-meaning unions and other leftist groups are straitjacketed, not just by sectarianism, but by the sheer volume of coalition attacks against the causes they stand for. With social justice, basic welfare and other naive ideas relegated to the box in the political attic labeled “Modern Compassionate Conservatism (contains Big Society)”, there is simply too much work to be done. We all know that TUC muttering about a general strike is likely remain just that: muttering. Any implementation of the lazy, occasional threat to outlaw strikes without a 50% union member turnout - ironic coming from a Conservative party without an electoral mandate - would simply formalise the existing situation.

This is frightening. David Cameron no longer needs to hide the return of the nasty party. The recent cabinet reshuffle was confirmation, if more were needed, that this government will continue to implement the most regressive, destructive set of “reforms” to much-needed British institutions since Thatcher. For sure, Liberal Democrat-flavoured policies do occasionally make it. Just as any reversal of the in-party marginalisation of leftist liberals by the Orange Bookers looks unlikely, however, so too has the party lost its leftist following. Despite Nick Clegg’s reference to a “turbo-charged right wing agenda” at his party conference this week, this concession to the social democratic end of the party is far too little, far too late.

The government’s targets are widely recognised: the poor, the young, women and the disabled, society’s most disenfranchised groups. Less noticed is the strategy behind it; for these attacks to provoke public resistance on any effective scale depends upon the ongoing empathy of more powerful groups. Amongst other factors, a lack of jobs across the board maintains the massive protests in Greece and in Spain. In contrast, our coalition’s toxic stew of cuts and privatization is cleverly directed towards the already disadvantaged. With widespread rhetoric stigmatizing these groups as blameworthy anyway, and in the context of a largely ineffective political opposition, there is only so long that the average person will be motivated to protest for others.

A twilight has descended upon anti-coalition opposition. For now it is mostly quiet, resigned and accepting. What protests it musters rarely make headlines, and in all this talk of politics there are still (for those lucky enough to have one) jobs to go to, children to raise, social engagements to be kept. For those who can afford it, there are lives to be led. In any case, resistance appears not to make much difference. Radicalism isn’t cool anymore. But whilst the left may have put its gloves on and gone home, we can be sure that the government is just getting started.

The crowds drawn by the student movement have "returned to the business of getting on with their lives". Photograph: Getty Images.

Ray Filar is a freelance journalist and an editor at openDemocracy. Her website is here.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry insiders imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that fracking is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.