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28 April 2015

Under the radar, the party grassroots aren’t as pro-fracking as their leaders would like

In an election where every vote counts and the ground campaign will decide the outcome in key marginals far more than any spin from party HQ, candidates have realised that the issue of fracking can’t be dodged, and being anti-fracking could be a vote-winner after all.

By will McCallum

For any election candidates door-knocking in Lancashire this has now become a familiar streetscape: the row of lampposts displaying ‘Frack Free Zone’ notices, the ‘Not for shale’ yard sign, and finally the window poster proclaiming: ‘I’m not backing fracking’. By the time the aspiring MP has reached the doorstep, they know there’s one issue they won’t be able to dodge.

This is hardly surprising in a county lying on the frontline of the controversial fracking advance spearheaded by energy firm Cuadrilla. What’s more remarkable is just how much of an election issue shale extraction has become in many other constituencies right across Britain – not to mention the silent rebellion it’s been fuelling among the Liberal Democrat and Labour rank and file.

To take the temperature of the political debate around fracking, just look at the Frack Free Promise website. Launched just six weeks ago, this online initiative run by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth has seen more than 1,000 election candidates rush to promise they will oppose fracking in their constituencies. Alongside a predictably large number of Green Party politicians, there’s also a more remarkable contingent of 157 Labour and 145 Lib Dem candidates. They not only make up almost a quarter of all prospective MPs fielded by the two parties but also include seven members of the Lib Dem frontbench team.

Since both parties have just confirmed their support for fracking in their manifestos (albeit heavily nuanced in Labour’s case), this is starting looking like a serious mutiny. In marginal seats up and down the country where exploration licences are about to be issued, opposition candidates as well as incumbents have recognised how badly this issue plays on the doorstep. A recent ComRes survey for Greenpeace has shown UK voters are three times more likely to vote for an anti-fracking than a pro-fracking candidate. Faced with a choice between toeing a vote-losing party line and breaking away from it, candidates have wisely chosen the latter.

In some key battleground seats candidates have been quick to declare their allegiance to the anti-fracking camp.  Take Hastings, for example, where Climate Change minister Amber Rudd is defending a majority of just 1,100 against a Labour opponent, Sarah Owen, who has made her anti-fracking stance a key part of her campaign.  In Thirsk and Malton, one of the constituencies where fracking is most likely to take place, Liberal Democrat, Labour and Green candidates have all lined up in opposition to their Tory counterpart.  In Wells, incumbent Liberal Democrat Tessa Munt has made fracking a key point of differentiation between her and her Conservative rival, even resigning from her post as Vince Cable’s aide over the issue.

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And of course in Lancashire, the heart of the fracking struggle, both Conservative MPs with live drilling applications in their constituencies, Mark Menzies in Fylde and Eric Ollerenshaw in Lancaster and Fleetwood, were amongst those endorsing a moratorium on fracking during the vote on the Infrastructure Bill earlier this year. Lancaster and Fleetwood Labour candidate, Cat Smith, even listed her anti-fracking stance at the top of her election billboard and has pledged to go one step further than her Tory rival by making the Frack Free Promise.

No wonder then that coalition parties and opposition alike have joined the once vociferous shale lobby in enforcing a strategic pre-election radio silence on fracking. None of them has anything to gain from talking about this increasingly toxic issue ahead of the closest election in living memory. Hence the separate decisions by the government and Lancashire planning authorities to kick two key announcements on fracking licences into the post-election long grass.

Against this conniving silence from industry and decision makers, the murmurs from the grassroots become clearly audible. And they may end up making the difference. In an election where every vote counts and the ground campaign will decide the outcome in key marginals far more than any spin from party HQ, candidates have realised that the issue of fracking can’t be dodged, and being anti-fracking could be a vote-winner after all.

In places like Lancashire and Yorkshire constituents feel undermined by London-centric politicians ignoring local concerns and going to extremes like scrapping long-established property rights to clear the way for fracking. Voting for an anti-shale candidate could become a way of expressing their anger towards a political system that doesn’t seem to care about them. In such a nip-and-tuck election race even a minimal protest vote over fracking could give the runners the extra inch they need to come out ahead in the photo finish.