Len McCluskey addressing TUC conference. Photo: Getty
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If we want political change, trade unions must be the real opposition to the coalition

The people who are bearing the brunt of the coalition’s cuts need the protection of good, community based activism. If the unions can provide this, it will pay a handsome political dividend.

Trade unions and council estates have much in common. Both are generally inhabited by low-earners , both enjoy high levels of camaraderie, and both boast high percentages of strong women who act as a silent, and often forgotten, backbone. The general election is only 13 months away, and the underlying narrative will be one of forgotten backbones. The focus of the election battle will again be on the scramble for middle class votes, in a pattern repeated since Labour embarked upon  a quest to evict the Tories at all costs from an area kindly marked out by successive editors of the Murdoch press as “the centre ground”. The lessons of abandoning core voters has manifested itself spectacularly in recent times, contributing to Labour’s by-election defeat in Bradford West to Respect in 2012.

For those thriving on politics of fear and division, areas of poverty have long since been fertile recruiting grounds, attracting the disenfranchised, and misleading the poorly educated. Parties like the BNP and UKIP have exploited these areas, sowing seeds of discontent, and spreading a message of conflict, despite most people only voting BNP or UKIP out of a desperation to be listened to. It’s easy to dismiss such voters as being politically inactive. I grew up on council estates, and can testify that these places have some of the most politically impassioned people you could possibly encounter. They care deeply about society, housing, health and education, about fighting for a fairer future for their kids. The truth isn’t that these people have nothing to say, rather that disconnected, beige, professional politicians in Westminster choose not to listen.

Labour’s early history tells a tale of a party designed to listen. Unions formed Labour precisely to oppose the exclusionary tendencies of the Tories, and to provide avenues for the poorest people to become politically active. The party of today squirms awkwardly at the mention of its radical heritage, offering in reply only a homogenised mixture of lightly rinsed austerity policies aimed at keeping right wing tabloids and trade unions simultaneously quiet, alongside bland platitudes about future reform. It is no longer a voice of the poor, of organised workers, nor is it a voice of opposition to the vested interests of the wealthy and powerful.

Recent comments by Len McKluskey underlined this, when he challenged Ed Miliband to provide “real alternatives to austerity”. While I agree with Len, I would go further by challenging unions to step forward and fill the vacuum left by Labour’s failure to provide meaningful opposition to this wretched coalition. The working poor, vulnerable, and disenfranchised need to be shown there is hope, that there are people with the means, and the motivation to help. It’s abundantly clear that Labour won’t heed Len’s call to arms, so unions need to take the initiative, and must do so in two ways.

Firstly, call Labour’s bluff. The party is incredibly reliant on union funding, and catatonically devoted to the power of free markets. Unions should be presenting a united front, using their combined financial power in the “free market” of political funding to force Labour back toward the path for which it was originally constructed.

And if the party leadership continue to expect unquestioning finance for very little return? 

Disaffiliate. Direct that considerable financial backing towards a party that will represent the aims of the working poor and organised labour.

Secondly, unions need to organise in the poorest communities. They need to work together, possibly via the TUC, to establish a solid, campaigning presence in areas where austerity has bitten the hardest, and the gap between “haves” and “have nots” is widest. The disenfranchised need credit unions, job shops, youth projects for kids. The elderly need assistance with daily tasks and transport. Soup kitchens and food banks need money, volunteers, and food. Those in debt, those suffering the harshest attacks of Iain Duncan Smith’s war of benefit attrition need counselling, they need advocacy. They need the protection of good, community based activism, and it will pay a handsome political dividend.

 Women in these areas, usually silent, exclusively magnificent in their devotion to their family’s survival, need the support of the unions’ equality agenda. Just as importantly, they need neighbourhoods where they can raise children in a climate of hope, solidarity, and aspiration, instead of fear, resignation, and detachment. Most important of all, they need to be heard.

For many women, the mantra they live by is “If you want something done properly, do it yourself.”

I challenge Len McKluskey, Paul Kenny, Mick Whelan, Mark Sewotka, and other union leaders to follow this mantra, as well as to listen, as they would have Miliband listen. Lay down the challenge by all means comrades, but please, if you want political change to be implemented properly, go and do it yourselves.

Karl Davis is a writer, stand up comedian, train driver, and trade union activist and advocate. He lives in Hull and is married with two young sons.

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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 experts 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 projected 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 natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, 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.