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Burning up and burning out

Climate change sceptics are busting out of their dank corners, sensing a moment of weakness.

At Ratcliffe-on-Soar last year - when Climate Camp assailed the power station from all sides - I bumped into one well-known female activist who shrugged and said: "The problem is that, right now, I just don't care." She had done so much, been so out there over the previous year, that suddenly all the energy had gone out of her like an exhausted toddler.

Which is kind of the state that the climate change movement seems to be in right now. We're nearing the end of February and still the post-Copenhagen fog shows no sign of lifting. I speak to group after group, and they try to muster some enthusiasm for the year ahead. But really what's coming through is flat, flat, flat. No one quite knows what to do next. Do they carry on aiming for a global deal?

Do they concentrate on local issues and shelve climate change for a month or two? But it's too important! Flurries of activity, lots of letters and emails! But still, nothing much happens, in that tired, unfocused, February kind of way.

Burnout is a well-known problem for activists, and one that they are not afraid to admit to. I first heard about it from people who had been involved in Newbury and Twyford Down. You're working on a cause 24 hours a day, living on site, eating, drinking and sleeping it, and then something pops and you have to give up on the whole thing and leave the country for a bit, or at least stop handing out flyers.

More seriously, activists can go through some full-on experiences. Being walloped by a policeman is as horrible and disorientating as being walloped by a mugger, with the added complication that some people you know just won't believe you. Even after the brutal police raid on the Diaz school during the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001, there was no counselling for the activists who were beaten till bones broke and then imprisoned in conditions that public prosecutors described as torture.

“Firemen debrief after every operation," says the Activist Trauma Support group, which has been operating for five or so years. "A lot of people drop out, disappear, stop being active, feel excluded because of their fear or because they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders . . . We need to support each other."

So is the current calm just because the campaigners are taking a little breather and doling out back rubs? There is a graver possibility, unfortunately, which is that we are heading into one of the cyclical dips in the public's interest in the environment - or whichever cause was pushing buttons five minutes ago.

If we really have stopped caring about climate change for a while, the timing couldn't be worse. The sceptics, like zombies, are busting out of their dank corners, sensing a moment of weakness. The world's leaders are dithering. Any minute now, we'll see an outburst of consultations: always a bad sign. The scientists are getting even more defensive than usual, and that's saying something.

Up and up go the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. No amount of arguing and disputing seems to slow that. If I had any money to invest, it would be going into space rockets. Mars is looking more attractive by the hour.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Labour break the Osborne supremacy?

The Conservative hegemony is deeply embedded - but it can be broken, says Ken Spours.

The Conservative Party commands a majority not just in the House of Commons, but also in the wider political landscape. It holds the political loyalty of expanding and powerful voting constituencies, such as the retired population and private sector businesses and their workers. It is dominant in English politics outside the largest urban centres, and it has ambitions to consolidate its position in the South West and to move into the “Northern Powerhouse”. Most ambitiously, it aims to detach irreversibly the skilled working classes from allegiance to the Labour Party, something that was attempted by Thatcher in the 1980s. Its goal is the building of new political hegemonic bloc that might be termed the Osborne supremacy, after its chief strategist.

The new Conservative hegemony is not simply based on stealing Labour’s political clothes or co-opting the odd political figure, such as Andrew Adonis; it runs much deeper and has been more than a decade the making. While leading conservative thinkers have not seriously engaged with the work of Antonio Gramsci, they act as if they have done. They do this instinctively, although they also work hard at enacting political domination.

 Adaptiveness through a conservative ‘double shuffle’

A major source of the new Conservative hegemony has been its fundamental intellectual political thinking and its adaptive nature. The intellectual foundations were laid in the decades of Keysianism when free market thinkers, notably Hayak and Friedman, pioneered neo-liberal thinking that would burst onto the political scene in Reagan/Thatcher era.  Despite setbacks, following the exhaustion of the Thatcherite political project in the 1990s, it has sprung back to life again in a more malleable form. Its strengths lie not only in its roots in a neo-liberal economy and state, but in a conservative ‘double shuffle’: the combining of neo-Thatcherite economics and social and civil liberalism, represented by a highly flexible and cordial relationship between Osborne and Cameron.  

 Right intellectual and political resources

The Conservative Party has also mobilised an integrated set of highly effective political and intellectual resources that are constantly seeking new avenues of economic, technological, political and social development, able to appropriate the language of the Left and to summon and frame popular common sense. These include well-resourced Right think tanks such as Policy Exchange; campaigning attack organisations, notably, the Taxpayers Alliance; a stratum of websites (e.g. ConservativeHome) and bloggers linked to the more established rightwing press that provide easy outlets for key ideas and stories. Moreover, a modernized Conservative Parliamentary Party provides essential political leadership and is highly receptive to new ideas.

 Very Machiavellian - conservative coercion and consensus

No longer restrained by the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives have also opted for a strategy of coercion to erode the remaining political bastions of the Left with proposed legislation against trade unions, attacks on charities with social missions, reform of the Human Rights Act, and measures to make it more difficult for trade unionists to affiliate to the Labour Party. Coupled with proposed boundary changes and English Votes for English Laws (Evel) in the House of Commons, these are aimed at crippling the organisational capacity of Labour and the wider Left.  It is these twin strategies of consensus and coercion that they anticipate will cohere and expand the Conservative political bloc – a set of economic, political and social alliances underpinned by new institutional ‘facts on the ground’ that aims to irrevocably shift the centre of political gravity.

The strengths and limits of the Conservative political bloc

In 2015 the conservative political bloc constitutes an extensive and well-organised array of ‘ramparts and earthworks’ geared to fighting successful political and ideological ‘wars of position’ and occasional “wars of manoeuvre”. This contrasts sharply with the ramshackle political and ideological trenches of Labour and the Left, which could be characterised as fragmented and in a state of serious disrepair.

The terrain of the Conservative bloc is not impregnable, however, having potential fault lines and weaknesses that might be exploited by a committed and skillful adversary. These include an ideological approach to austerity and shrinking the state that will hit their voting blocs; Europe; a social ‘holding pattern’ and dependence on the older voter that fails to tap into the dynamism of a younger and increasingly estranged generation and, crucially, vulnerability to a new economic crisis because the underlying systemic issues remain unresolved.

 Is the Left capable of building an alternative political bloc?

The answer is not straightforward.  On the one hand, Corbynism is focused on building and energizing a committed core and historically may be recognized as having saved the Labour Party from collapse after a catastrophic defeat in May. The Core may be the foundation of an effective counter bloc, but cannot represent it.  A counter-hegemony will need to be built by reaching out around new vision of a productive economy; a more democratic state that balances national leadership and local discretion (a more democratic version of the Northern Powerhouse); a new social alliance that really articulates the idea of ‘one nation’ and an ability to represent these ideas and visions in everyday, common-sense language. 

 If the Conservatives instinctively understand political hegemony Labour politicians, with one or two notable exceptions, behave as though they have little or no understanding of what is actually going on.  If they hope to win in future this has to change and a good start would be a collective sober analysis of the Conservative’s political and ideological achievements.

This is an extract from The Osborne Supremacy, a new pamphlet by Compass.

Ken Spours is a Professor at the IoE and was Convener of the Compass Education Inquiry. The final report of the Compass Education Inquiry, Big Education can be downloaded here.