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Saturday 6 June 2015

Burnham Right On Fracking

While his rivals for the Labour leadership look for sufficient fellow MPs to back them and thus put them on the ballot paper, Leigh MP Andy Burnham has pulled a rabbit out of his campaigning hat and declared his support for a moratorium on fracking. This might not mean much to those in the Westminster village, but to many swing voters, and, if some results from last month’s polls are anything to go by, Tory ones, it means a lot.
For years now, advocates of hydraulic fracturing - cracking open rocks to release gas and oil - have been pointing to the so-called “shale gas revolution” in the USA, and urging energy companies operating in the UK to follow suit. Most of those advocates are out there on the right, with a significant number representing lobby groups and “think tanks” which influence the Tory Party. Much fracking support is concentrated in the London area.

But the places where fracking might take place are scores of miles away, and thus the disconnect. Even the protests in Balcombe - just off the Brighton line south from Victoria - have not caused the most zealous fracking advocates to stop and think. However, and here we encounter a significantly sized however, opposition to fracking has now begun to hit the Tories at the ballot box. North-West England was the scene of the reverse.

Only one council went from overall Tory control to outright Labour control last month - Cheshire West and Chester. Wards such as Newton and Upton were crucial to the result: both had returned two Tories in 2011. Labour took both seats in Newton, and young anti-fracking campaigner Matt Bryan took one of the two seats in Upton, previously a Tory stronghold. Worse was to come for the Tories in the Parliamentary election.

Stephen Mosley was the only candidate who thought fracking should be given a chance: even the UKIP hopeful was sceptical. He lost. As Phil McCann of the BBC told, “Dart Energy has planning permission to drill a test well to explore for coal bed methane at Upton Heath. but says no drilling is actually ‘scheduled or planned’”. Mosley and his council colleagues did not pay sufficient concern to voters’ concerns.

Those concerns are not merely nimbyism, but the thought, as Burnham has suggested, that fracking licences are being handed out with no regard to the views of the communities affected. Some of those communities may, on balance, favour having their area tracked; many will not. Much of that lack of favour comes because many do not trust the little scientific evidence that has been put forward.

And so we come back to J K Galbraith’s definition of leadership: “All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally  the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership”. For many across England and Wales, fracking is indeed an anxiety. And the current Government is not perceived to be confronting it.

Andy Burnham has committed himself to confronting that anxiety. Other Labour leadership hopefuls may follow. The lesson from Chester should be both instructive, and persuasive.

1 comment:

Malcolm Redfellow said...

The residual-Trot in me says the Tories should be encouraged to persist in frackerama. For a racing certainty, it must go badly, sadly, madly wrong somehow, somewhere. [But most Tory policies tend the same way. Just watch and wait.]

However, on moral and ecological grounds, Andy Burnham is doing the decent, proper, moral thing. More power to him.