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22 September 2022updated 24 Apr 2024 5:37pm

Labour must “face reality” on the energy crisis and back fracking, says GMB boss

The leader of one of the most powerful trade unions has urged the party to abandon “bourgeois environmentalism”.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Labour must back fracking, hydrogen and new nuclear power plants to solve the energy crisis rather than bowing to the “bourgeois environmental lobby”, the head of one of the UK’s most powerful trade unions has said.

Ahead of the Labour Party conference in Liverpool this weekend, Gary Smith, the general secretary of the GMB, denounced the party’s pro-green agenda, declaring that a “sprint for renewables just doesn’t cut it”.

Liz Truss’s government has confirmed the lifting of the ban on fracking in England, which had been prohibited because of doubts about its economic viability, safety and environmental impact. Ed Miliband, the shadow climate change secretary, condemned the decision. He said: “We now have an energy policy run for big fossil fuel interests not for the British people. No to the windfall tax and yes to dangerous, unsafe fracking. Fracking is a dangerous fantasy – it would do nothing to cut energy bills, it costs far more than renewables, it is unsafe and it is deeply unpopular with the public.”

In an interview with the New Statesman, Smith accused Labour of a “lack of honesty” and of “not facing reality” over the scale of energy development needed to guarantee the UK’s energy supply, the fragility of which has been shown up by the war in Ukraine. Smith said it was “demonstrable” that fracking could be done safely. “We import a huge amount of fracked gas and we import methane from America, which is basically fracked gas,” he said.

“Now we have a choice: we are either going to import gas that has been fracked somewhere else in the world and put on diesel-bombing ships or we take responsibility for our own carbon. If it can be done safely, and that is demonstrable, then it’s time that we took responsibility for our own carbon emissions.”

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About half of the gas the UK uses is produced domestically, mostly from the North Sea, the other half imported. Of the imports, the great majority comes from Norway, 73 per cent in 2021 compared with 5 per cent from the US.

Labour has adopted “a fairer, greener future” as its conference slogan and the party is expected to reaffirm its commitment to renewable energy and reducing use of fossil fuels. “There is a very serious issue with the climate,” said Smith. “But the idea that the future is going to be all about electricity, or that we’re moving to a future simply about renewables, is just not true.”

He urged activists from the Labour for a Green New Deal pressure group, which calls for a commitment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, to “listen to unions that are in the energy sector”, such as the GMB. “We should not get caught up in a bourgeois environmental debate driven by the bourgeois environmental lobby,” he said.

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“The debate on the left needs to seriously talk about climate change, but it needs to be focused on jobs. And the renewables industry, and many of those who espouse it in politics, have no interest in jobs for working class communities.

“And we should stop pretending that we’re in an alliance with them. The big winners from renewables have been the wealthy and big corporate interests. Invariably the only jobs that are created when wind farms get put up, particularly onshore wind, have been jobs in public relations and jobs for lawyers.”

The GMB, which is affiliated to the Labour Party and has 460,000 members, represents the majority of workers at the UK’s nuclear power stations, such as Hinkley Point, Sellafield and Dungeness.

Smith said that the government had wasted “years on financial engineering rather than investing in our energy infrastructure”. “And now we are going to lose electricity generating capacity in the next few years,” he added, pointing out that Britain’s nuclear power stations, with the exception of Hinkley Point, which is under construction, and Sizewell B, are expected to be offline by 2030.

“And the question, therefore, is where is the electricity going to come from? We cannot do it by renewables and we cannot rely on energy imports. Norway’s not going to be exporting electricity this winter and neither is France. If we have a ‘beast from the east’ – cold weather with no wind – we’re going to have massive problems in the UK in terms of electricity generation. Nobody has woken up to what is coming around the corner.”

Labour said in June that if it was in government it would double onshore wind power production by 2030, double offshore wind by 2035, triple solar power by 2030 and invest in tidal, nuclear and hydrogen. Smith has urged the party to set out how it would fund new nuclear power stations, warning that votes were at risk in Red Wall areas.

He said: “One in 15 offshore [oil and gas] workers actually live in marginal seats in the north-east of England. So if you’re saying you’re going to pull people out of work with some vague notion that they are going to get employment in industries that don’t exist or will never be created, then you’re just going to switch people off.”

[See also: What to expect from Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-Budget on Friday]

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