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15 May 2024

Going head-to-head with Lisa Nandy over Gaza

Also this week: sun, solar storms and climate anxiety, and protesting on a surfboard.

By Grace Blakeley

I appear fairly regularly in the media, but Question Time has a unique power to make me nervous. It is watched by more people than most other political panel shows combined, and can make or break careers. The presence of an audience adds a further layer of uncertainty: you can never quite predict what questions will be asked, how the audience will react to the panellists or who will receive the elusive applause.

I first appeared on the show five years ago, at the tender age of 25, when I went head-to-head with Jacob Rees-Mogg in a debate about the legacy of the British empire. Rees-Mogg sparked a diplomatic incident by pointing out that the concentration camps used by the British Army in the Boer War, in which tens of thousands of people died, had lower mortality rates than Glasgow at the time. Neither the South Africans nor the Scots were particularly pleased with the comparison.

It was with this very vivid memory at the front of my mind that I made the journey up to Stoke-on-Trent for a recent show. I have learned a lot in five years, and I feel much more confident expressing my ideas. But the stakes felt higher than usual given that we’re watching a Western-backed military power slaughter innocent civilians in the run-up to a general election that will almost inevitably see the governing party removed from office. I knew I was going to be the only person on the panel with a dissenting view on Gaza, and it was critical to subject the shadow international development secretary, Lisa Nandy, to a rigorous cross-examination on the topic.

In the midst of the debate, I asked Nandy why she had never challenged Keir Starmer on the comments he made on LBC, in which he argued that Israel had the right to cut off water and power to Gaza – a clear breach of international law. Nandy claimed that Starmer had never made the comments, then that “he’s clarified exactly… what he meant”, despite Emily Thornberry having defended them on Newsnight. Politicians are often sent out in the media to defend the indefensible, but they should draw the line at obscuring the truth.

Reasons to sweat

Nerves were not the only reason I found myself somewhat hot under the collar as I headed up to Stoke. The week brought the beginnings of summer to much of the UK, as well as incredible sightings of the Northern Lights in many parts of the country – including astonishingly bright pinks and greens where I live in Cornwall. Unfortunately, my unforgiving book tour schedule meant I was unable to enjoy the sun, surf and solar storms on offer at home, and instead found myself on my way to London, mulling over some more troubling climatic news.

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A survey of several hundred of the world’s leading climate scientists found that 80 per cent expect global temperatures to reach at least 2.5°C above pre-industrial levels. This figure is way beyond the 1.5°C limit the world agreed to in Paris in 2015, and would lead to a “semi-dystopian” future replete with extreme weather events, mass migration and famine. Many of the scientists surveyed said they felt hopeless and depressed at the world’s ongoing dependence on fossil fuels, and the failure of governments around the world to invest in decarbonisation.

Strong feelings

While the weather and climate are very different things, the sun does bring a heightened awareness of global heating. Climate anxiety is rising, particularly among young people. In 2021 a survey found that more than half of people aged between 16 and 25 felt “sad”, “anxious” or “powerless” about climate breakdown.

This sense of powerlessness is not limited to climate activists. Powerlessness – and the rage it generates – is the defining emotion animating modern politics. As I argue in my book Vulture Capitalism, it stems both from the astonishing centralisation of power within modern capitalism and the crushing of collective movements that seek to resist it. This is why I find so much hope in organisations that bring people together to fight for peace, justice and sustainability in their workplaces, in their communities, and on the streets.

Into the waves

Actions speak louder than words, so on 18 May I’ll be heading home to Newquay, grabbing my surfboard and paddling out with Surfers Against Sewage to protest the unforgiveable pollution being perpetrated by our privatised water companies (which Will Dunn writes about on page 22). If surfing isn’t your thing, there are plenty more ways to get involved, from joining a union to getting involved in the climate movement and volunteering in your local community. In a world that encourages us to see ourselves as isolated, competing individuals, any action that brings us together to support each other is a powerful act of rebellion.

[See also: Labour is yet to win over the north]

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This article appears in the 15 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Stink