I visited the fracking protest camp on the August bank holiday Monday. It was a quiet day on the roadside just outside Balcombe. Many of the people I spoke to were getting ready to go back to work the following day. They were keen to say that they “don’t normally do this kind of thing” but felt compelled to make themselves heard on this topic. Several of them were local residents, delighted that their long-standing opposition to local fracking had been amplified by the presence of the camp.
It is no mean feat to get an issue reported in national news bulletins, and the protest camp has done a good job in highlighting local and more widespread opposition to fracking. When word spread about the arrest of Caroline Lucas, some of us Brighton-based activists may have sighed at her uncanny ability to join in with something which was already underway and steal the headline. More importantly, though, has it helped at all? And should it, according to one commentator, make Labour consider welcoming her into a future cabinet?
What has her arrest achieved? Great things for Lucas, amongst those people who were inclined to agree with her anyway: they speak of someone showing the confidence of her convictions. What about further afield, amongst the millions who may catch a news headline or two, but aren’t clear about even what fracking is, and don’t have a strong view on the matter? The Guardian has recently reported that public opinion is split 40% for and 40% against fracking, and it seems to me that many are unclear as to what the arguments are. Media coverage, when accurate, at least increases awareness that there is opposition. But does a high-profile arrest not simply play into the hands of those in the media who want to portray the protesters as a subset of idle hippies with no regard for the law, and who devote zero column space to the issues themselves?
One of the things holding the environmental movement back is its propensity to be dominated by those who see addressing our environmental impact as a way of attacking everything: consumption, the establishment, capitalism and big business, authority in general. This is counter-productive as it puts eco concerns into a special nonconformists’ box, and prevents environmental awareness from becoming mainstream. Lucas getting arrested may have delighted those already in the box, but will it really have changed anyone’s minds?
And this is the issue with Lucas in general. She has won awards, granted by the politically engaged on the left, for being “influential”. But who has she influenced? Not the government, that’s for sure. And public concern about climate change has fallen over the past few years – so not the public either. She is forever preaching to the converted.
So how should Labour respond? Unlike the Green Party, Labour has the reach to really make something mainstream, which they did with the Climate Change Act, setting the world’s first carbon reduction targets which made it something that needed to be talked about right across the economic and social sphere. This is the way forward. I would like to see Labour recommit itself to its already stated aim of promoting a low-carbon economy, by taking a stronger line against fracking, and certainly against an Osborne-esque “generous tax regime”. But I cannot see how Caroline Lucas in a Labour cabinet could help bring sustainability to the core of how we as a country do things. And besides, she would never be interested in taking on such a role.
Putting aside the feelings Green Party activists have about Labour, as expressed by Caroline Penn, Caroline Lucas is only really happy when protesting against what someone else is doing: she is not interested in being in a position of having to make the decisions herself. There is only one place in the country where the Green Party has actually held power, and that is on Brighton and Hove Council. No-one has been quicker than Lucas in distancing themselves from what it has been doing. It would be bad for her image to be a part of an actual government which has to deal with real issues and make unpopular decisions. She will always want to sit outside with the protesters. In a sense, she is not really a politician at all, just a public figure with a nose for PR. It is down to Labour to lead the way and show how this country can sustainably and successfully re-orient itself towards a low-carbon economy. That is what will make the difference.
Tracey Hill is Coordinator of Brighton & Hove SERA and blogs at Red Reflections