India Bourke
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Preston New Road: how a fracking protest became a movement

Anti-fracking protestors at Preston New Road in Lancashire have undertaken a month of "Rolling Resistance" events. But does building a national movement risk estranging those closer to home?

Last Friday night in Lancashire, members of the UK’s anti-fracking movement huddled together amid straw-bales and vegetable stew to talk of protests past. Or rather, to sing about them: “Come, brethren of the water and let us assemble; to treat upon this matter, which makes us quake and tremble,” opened a tune from 1611 about the enclosure of the fens. “It’s like the radical anarchist version of church,” one audience member joked. 

Clean energy needs little divine assistance when it comes to defeating the logic behind fracking: renewables are already setting UK records for generating more electricity than coal or gas. Yet as the government continues to tout fracking's potential contributions to “energy security, growth and jobs”what is it that keeps long running opposition to the industry on its feet?

Fracking's rural setting perhaps makes it easier to overlook the threats it poses to local wellbeing and the global climate. This certainly seemed to be the case last October, when the central government overturned a local council’s decision to prevent test drilling at Preston New Road, just outside Blackpool. The Cuadrilla-run site is now in the process of constructing up to four wells, two of which they have said will be drilled and fractured this year. 

Since January, concerned members of the public have been a continuous presence on the pavement opposite the site’s entry gates. Most come from the surrounding area, yet in recent weeks outside support has also swelled, thanks to a series of "Rolling Resistance" events coordinated by local anti-fracking groups and the national Reclaim the Power network.

On the weekend I visit, the atmosphere on the short stretch of rural highway feels almost carnival. A large speaker blares out music, while around two-hundred people gather to block the road-side entrance. There’s dancing, poetry, speeches and a stall selling organic veg. Cars at either end have to squeeze along the one remaining free lane - yet many toot their horns in appreciation as they do. “It’s like a tea-party today,” one police officer comments.

"Dont' frack the land that feeds you": Franklin Scrase, from Tyddyn Teg co-operative farm in Wales, has brought his veg stall to the protest.

The surge in numbers has re-energised some of the protest’s most embedded members. A woman called Julie fought back tears as she thanked those gathered from around the country: “I’ve been a taxi service, I’ve been a B&B and I’m prepared to do that until this thing stops” John Tootle, who has welcomed visiting protestors on to his land, also believes that the police are more courteous around a larger group.

Liz and Anna from Reclaim the Power: "We're going to win because we care more."

In addition to this, the mass events are helping different groups from across the wider environmental movement to meet and find common ground. “I want my granddaughter to grow up in a world at least as beautiful as the one I grew up in,” says Alan Schofield, a speaker at last Friday’s event for Farmers-Against-Fracking.  

Alan grew up in nearby Blackpool and remembers a time when the city was “covered with market gardens”. Today he runs a successful, small-scale growing business of his own, as well as chairing the Organic Grower’s Alliance. He sums up the relationship between organic farming and fracking with a single word: soil. Fracking may be considered a “dirty word” by some, he says, but dirt is something we all need to embrace: pesticides have already polluted UK soils, and further damage from a potential spill of fracking chemicals is “too great to risk”.

Anna, Steve and Rebecca say "Yes to Kale, No to Shale".

These thoughts echo the protest’s wider concern with protecting the vulnerable – both within the camp and beyond. “It’s like when a baby elephant falls into a water-hole; the whole family is immediately there to help”, says Roland, an 81 year-old retired probation officer who has travelled all the way up from Torquay in Devon. His tea is made for him by Nick Sheldrick, a 36 year-old former naval officer from Blackpool, who fell from his wheelchair when police-officers pulled him out of the way of lorry they were escorting into the site. “I want a clean Lancashire and a clean UK,” Nick says. 

A long-standing group of protestors camp out at the side of the road.

Yet the same emphasis on building a wide, issue-crossing movement, which appears to be giving the Preston Road protest such strength, might also risk breaking apart local support.

At first glance, dairy farmer Andy Pemberton from nearby Lytham St Annes has much in common with the growers at the protest. Unlike many dairy producers in the UK, his fifth generation family-farm sells directly to local customers and shops, and he is deeply concerned that a chemical spill at Preston New Road could make the region “an agricultural wasteland”. He was even planning on attending the Farmers-against-fracking event, before a calf got itself into trouble and needed his attention. 

There are limits, however, to Andy’s support for the protest. He doesn’t share the above vision of pesticide-free farming: “Organic is going back to the middle ages!” he says. Nor is he completely against the principle of fracking. Instead he has sympathy with many farmers who, like him, have been offered money from shale companies in exchange for tests and drilling - especially in a region struggling to keep jobs.

Furthermore, he fears that the protestors’ passion could come back to bite businesses like his. “My fear is they’re going to make more of it than they need,” he says of the possibility of a future chemical spill at the site, worrying that even if the contamination didn’t reach his fields, the stigma would still push his buyers away.

Andy Pemberton of Pemberton's farm and farm-shop fears for his business.

Others are even more sceptical of the protestors' presence.  A woman I meet at Andy’s farm tells me she thinks the way the protest is disrupting traffic is “immoral”, not to mention the cost of the significant police presence - with officers being drafted in from neighbouring forces.

Despite this, the protest's expanded efforts appear to be suceeding. Fracking's profile has been raised and its progress disrupted. Haulage companies are even pulling out of their contracts with Cuadrilla, with one cargo and freight company posting the following to its Facebook page: "If we had know this delivery was for the company Cuadrilla and to be used in the questionable fracking industry we quite simply would not have become involved. We can state that we will never knowingly work for Cuadrilla or any agents involved with Cuadrilla or the fracking industry again."

It is also in the small acts that the protestors are winning over wider support. On the pavement opposite the site’s gates, 51 year-old Sarah from St Annes is sitting on a fold-out chair with three, well-groomed whippets. She sometimes crosses the road to speak to the more involved protestors, but mostly she sits there simply to be seen - by Cuadrilla, by the police and by any local people she knows who might drive by. “I’m a local and we need more locals here in order for them not to feel intimidated by what they’ve heard or seen on Facebook: if they drive past and see me, it’s something.”

Sarah from St Annes: "The 'F' word is almost a dirty word. I work in a local shop and you just can't mention it."

Sarah’s experience suggests that this protest has become, like many movements before it, as much about crossing divides between radical and reserved, urban and rural, employed and unemployed, North and South, as it is about crossing a road.

And perhaps this will be Preston New Road's most lasting legacy. For when the numbers who have helped swelled the protest in recent weeks fall away, those remaining will know they are not alone. As the ancient lyrics performed by Three Acres a Cow last Friday evening has reminded them: history doesn't forget.


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

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.