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Could fierce opposition to fracking make life difficult for certain Tories?

The energy behind the anti-fracking campaign only appears to be on the rise.

“Fracking is one issue that encapsulates nearly everything that is currently wrong with the state of our democracy,” says Tina Rothery, the anti-fracking “nana" now standing as a Green Party candidate in Fylde in Lancashire. But is it also a subject that could leave the Tory Party fractured come the 8 June?

Tina has long battled the UK’s oil and gas industry over this issue and sees the government’s recent support for an exploration well at Preston New Road (in direct opposition to the will of Lancashire County Council) as a particularly “sickening” act:

“It shows that it was possible for Westminster to say that local democracy doesn’t count when they choose it not to count. It also shows that what we consider to be a clear and obvious danger to the health of our children, comes second to the profits of an industry.”

Objections to fracking are many – from the threat that pumping high volumes of water and chemicals into the ground poses to the local environment, to its global contribution to rising CO2. Even Sam Hall, a senior researcher at Bright Blue, a liberal conservative think tank, is not entirely convinced by the development of more carbon-intensive infrastructure, "at a time when we should be rapidly reducing our consumption of fossil fuels".

Such arguments appear to have struck a seam of sympathy during the recent local elections. The Green Party saw its support surge across numerous at-risk areas: in North Yorkshire's Falsgrave and Stepney, David Malone’s vote rose from 18 per cent - 32 per cent; in Lancashire’s Lancaster Central, Gina Dowding was re-elected with a massively increased majority; and on the Isle of Wight the election returned the Green’s first ever councillor for the island. According to Dilys Cluer, a Green Party councillor on Scarborough Borough Council, some party supporters are becoming more active specifically on fracking.

Independent candidates and Lib Dems also returned strong results in fracked-off locales. In Malton in North Yorkshire – where a test-well was given planning approval last year - the anti-fracking Independent candidate saw their 2013 lead surge from 855-1554 votes.

So is it possible that these arguments could yet cause Conservative government support for the industry to fissure and split?

Public support is behind the fracking-fight: the latest government survey shows 30 per cent oppose the practice, while just 19 per cent are in favour. And left-wing thinking on the subject is increasingly united: Labour’s leaked manifesto suggests the party will join the Greens and Lib Dems in calling for an outright ban. In the recent Manchester Mayoral race, even the Conservative candidate tweeted that he would oppose fracking “until, if ever, it’s proven to be safe”.

The economic justification for fracking is also on unstable ground. Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, thinks its profitability might not pan out as hoped, “particularly with international gas prices falling again and Donald Trump determined to increase US output". While according to Josh Emden, IPPR Research Fellow, there are concerns over its more basic viability: “Even leaving aside environmental and carbon budget concerns, estimates reported by government from actual test drilling currently show fracking could only supply gas to the UK for an optimistic maximum of ten years.”

But what about Conservative domination at county level – won’t that hand the party control over fracking’s future? Seven English counties with high densities of fracking licences all saw their numbers of Conservative councillors increase in the recent elections, potentially making those councils more willing to grant applications to frack. For Kathryn McWhirter, a member of Balcombe’s Frack Free Residents Association in West Sussex, the Tory triumph has been deflating: “Too many in our area are still asleep, unaware of the plethora of wells we could have across this region if we fail to oppose the industry successfully.”

Yet in spite of this, the energy behind the anti-fracking campaign only appears to be on the rise. In the upcoming general election, the Lib Dems have their eye on Ryedale, and the Green's Tina Rothery on Fylde. Plus, thanks to the pooled resources of Frack Free United and Cross Party Frack Free, it is becoming ever easier to track the thinking of individual candidates – with leaflets, an interactive map, and a register where those candidates can document their support for a ban.  

Vital now will be keeping up the pressure - both in the lead up to the election and beyond. Friends of the Earth is on the case with a call for all prospective parliamentary candidates to agree to a series of environmental pledges. Campaigners at Reclaim the Power are already organising protests for the summer.

As Greenpeace’s Hannah Martin recently said in a statement: "Facing arrest for protesting is scary, but the prospect of fracking in Lancashire is scarier.”

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear