Photo: Jon Bartley
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Police aggression can’t beat the moral force of the green movement

For the first time in my political career, I was shoved, dragged, and forcibly removed from a protest. 

Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen the police getting more and more heavy handed on fracking protests, with the shoving, kettling and dragging of local residents becoming a strange new norm in sleepy towns across Yorkshire and Lancashire.

Still, it’s one thing to read and hear about it, and quite another thing to experience it for yourself. On Friday, for the first time in my political career, I found myself giving a speech in the centre of a kettle, before being shoved, dragged, and forcibly removed along with a number of other protesters. Clearly, we’ve got the fracking industry rattled.

I’m far from the first to experience police aggression at fracking protests. You may remember the recent story of Anne Power - an 85 year old who was dragged across a road by three police officers while protesting at a fracking site. Or perhaps you saw the incident of a woman who felt bullied for the unpardonable crime of serving tea to local residents exercising their right to peaceful protest.

As co-leader of the Green party, I joined local activists and residents to show our solidarity with the community, and peaceful opposition to this particularly dirty and dangerous form of fossil fuel extraction. If our government is serious about honouring the climate change commitments it made to the world as part of the Paris Agreement, then we can’t start churning up our countryside to try and wring every last drop of fossil fuel from the earth, no matter the cost to our water, our air and our climate.

Unsurprisingly, public support for fracking has gone into freefall, with public support hitting an absolute rock bottom of just 16 per cent over the summer. At the same time, we also saw the cost of wind energy collapse, and renewables breaking record after record after record. Not only do we not want fracking - we don’t need it. Our government needs to show the same political courage as Scotland and simply stop fracking. Sadly, we’re seeing the exact opposite at the moment.

As I type these words, drills are poised to churn up the countryside of Ryedale, North Yorkshire, because our government looks likely to side with the companies who want to wreck our countryside and climate for the sake of a small short-term profit, rather than listen to local residents, scientific experts and the public at large. The council has approved the licence. Local residents have been notified. All that remains is for secretary of state Greg Clarke to give the thumbs up, and Third Energy can kick their reckless dash for gas into action. Now is the time to keep the pressure on.

Neither the government nor the fracking companies were expecting this level of public resistance, not just from dedicated green groups, but from wave after wave of local residents. People who have never been on a protest before in their lives are now climbing rigs, blocking roads and stopping lorries to protect their communities, their water, their climate, their local democracy and the natural world that they love.

The treatment we’ve received from the police in response is shameful, but heartening at the same time. It shows us that we’ve got the fracking industry on the ropes. They’ve lost the argument, and are resorting to the only tactic they have left - brute force. It will be no match for the moral force of our movement.

Jon Bartley is the co-leader of the Green Party. 

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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.