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What the Corbyn moment means for the left

At long last, the left is asking itself whether power without principle is worth having. 

The ultimate triumph of the political right in the 1980s was that its actions eventually forced the left to sell its soul for power – but many of today’s young voters neither remember nor care quite why it did so. All we have known are progressive parties that were callous in office and gutless in opposition. That’s why we almost suspect that it has all been a con. We almost suspect that when Jeremy Corbyn, a sexagenarian socialist with a 32-year parliamentary record of actually having principles and sticking to them, is elected leader of the Labour Party, the jig will be up. Corbyn will pull off his suspicious, bearded mask and underneath will be some baby-faced student organiser, or the unquiet shade of Michael Foot, or Russell Brand declaring that it was just a scam to see what Labour would do with a real left-wing candidate.

What the party has done so far is panic in a manner so incoherent and undignified that the Tories have marvelled, finishing the popcorn and starting on the dodgy dips as they watch the chaos unfold. We are told that a “Free French” resistance is being plotted within the Labour Party. The image of Blairites and vacillating former Miliblands as a “resistance movement” is worth sav­ouring. What on earth would their slogans be? “What do we want? Strategic capitulation to the centre right with a view to contesting an election in five years!” “When do we want it? Subject to legal review!”

The big problem with Corbyn is that he throws the collapsed vacuum of mainstream Labour rhetoric into sharp relief. None of the other three leadership candidates has a single memorable political idea beyond the idea of themselves as leader. The anointed heirs of New Labour appear to believe in nothing apart from their right to rule – and they seem agnostic about even that, given the invertebrates they have put up against the Corbyn threat.

The “electability” conversation is where it all becomes clear. The argument that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable is being made by three candidates who can’t even win an election against Jeremy Corbyn. Their arguments are backed by two former prime ministers: Gordon Brown, whose main claim
to fame is losing an election to the Tories in 2010, and Tony Blair, the Ghost of Bad Decisions Past. Both of them are making the case that the ability to win a general election is the first and only important quality in a leader after years of muttering and shuffling behind Ed Miliband, a very nice man whose middle name could have been “Constitutionally Unable to Win a General Election”.

Corbyn, however, has been re-elected by the people of Islington North consistently since 1983 and, like Bernie Sanders in the US, seems as surprised as anyone suddenly to be reaping the rewards of a lifetime of sticking to his principles – principles that once put Corbyn on the moderate left of Labour and now make him look, at least in the estimation of much of the press, like the nightmare offspring of Che Guevara and Emma Goldman dressed up in a Stalin costume. And all for proposing a modest increase in the top rate of income tax.

Rumours of the death of the political left have been exaggerated. Corbyn, like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and the Scottish National Party, is an immune response from a sick and suffering body politic trying to fight off a chronic infection that threatens to swallow hope for ever. There is a crisis in representative democracy in the west and it was established well before the stock-market collapse of 2008. The old centre left is at odds with its electorate because it decided for itself the limits of what was politically possible a decade ago.

The logic is this: it’s all very well to talk about fairer taxes, rent controls, sustainable wages and an end to the scapegoating of migrants and minorities – of course, we would all get behind those ideas if we could – but, in the end, all of the things for which the public has been crying out for decades just won’t make us “electable” and it is better to have power than it is to have principles. So, much as it pains us, we will continue to capitulate to the austerity consensus and wait around for another five years for our next polystyrene leader to fail to inspire a nation.

Corbyn bucks that trend, terrifying a political class that chose power over principles long ago without once asking itself whether power without principles is worth having. The paradox is delicious. For the first time in years, Labour is popular and interesting, but apparently it would rather not be. In some people’s estimation, a surge in party membership of almost a third, from organised labour, the working poor and disenfranchised young people, would be considered a good thing for a party that claims to represent the interests of all three.

Across Europe and the United States, however, professional politicians of the centre left have one idea about what politics should look like and the people they claim to represent increasingly have another. Certain politicians have not properly understood the definition of “representative” democracy.

Today’s voters are not the voters of 1997 or 2005. We are digital and post-geographic; we mobilise fast and we want more. We are not wedded to the electoral machine. Our disenfranchisement has been mistaken for apathy for too long by a political class that claims to want young people to vote but turns out to want young people to do as they’re told and vote for it or not at all.

We want someone to remember that democracy does not begin and end at the ballot box. We want someone to represent the interests of the young, the poor and the marginalised in parliament. These are simple, modest demands. And the most damning indictment on the British political machine is the way in which these simple, modest demands look like a revolution.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars

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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.