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Campaign stories: Edinburgh University goes fossil free (finally!)

The successful five year campaign to divest Edinburgh University from fossil fuels should give heart to people everywhere who are campaigning for climate justice in their communities.

By Ruby Kelman and People & Planet Society, with additional text by Ric Lander.

Edinburgh University People & Planet with supporters in the Old College quad, March 2016. Credit: Ed P&P.

After six years of campaigning led by student group People & Planet, and drawing in the efforts of staff, alumni and numerous University bodies and departments and Scottish civil society, the University of Edinburgh has finally agreed to fully divest from fossil fuels.

Continue reading

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What we’re saying Yes to: Public investment for the people

The UK is in dire need of new investment for housing. Credit: GWN2008

There are a lot of problems we face that we need our government to tackle. Some demand the time of effort of policy makers, like the forging of new relationshops within and outwith our borders, the provision of new rights, and changes in regulations. Others demand cash, for example to increase spending on public services.

Economic investment is different again. Like service provision it costs money, but it in each case it should be a one off. You spend money to do a project – be it public or private – and society is better off afterwards whether or not further investment is provided. Continue reading

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No time to waste: to fight climate change we need a Labour Government

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Jeremy Corbyn speaking with Naomi Klein and others in Paris during the 2015 climate summit. Image by Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

It’s 2017. You live in a dystopian future where tiny drone aircraft deliver pizzas, oil companies create earthquakes to get the last drops of fuel out of the earth, our fields are tilled by solar-powered robots, people wear video-recording sunglasses and have conversations with their wrist watches, dead rappers perform at concerts via hologram, and a weak international agreement to try and stop the skies from destroying natural life is being torn up by a fascist businessman who has taken over the USA.

Now is a time of great technological change and grave danger, and we need public investment, and lots of it, to get us though it.

Climate change, and the far-right’s rejection of it as a priority, should give us a special reason to panic because every time political leaders fail to act deepens the crisis, every moment we waste makes the task harder.

The (albeit inadequate) Paris deal gave the impression there was a direction of travel, too slow, but at least steady movement. The rise of the right has changed all this.

Whilst many work to show our political leaders and the wider world that climate change matters, Trump’s message of defiance works the opposite way. His actions do matter and will have a real effect. Markets will respond by making fossil fuels cheaper and renewable energy more expensive. Emissions will rise. And many, many more people will die – from extreme weather, heat stress, starvation, respiratory diseases and violent conflicts.

Some extol technological innovation and the power of the market, maintaining that these make political efforts on climate change essentially a side show. In fact the opposite is true; markets, only capable of delivering short-term profit, are unfit for unlocking the scale of capital required for the length of time over which it’s needed to tackle climate change. And in the modern era technological innovation almost always begins with the support of publicly-funded institutions (take silicon valley, digital TV or the web). Only big political support will bring about the fast economic transformation we need to tackle climate change, and we don’t have it. Continue reading

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21 acts of defiance: Scottish people’s 10 year war against Trump and the politicans who backed him

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Protestors march on Donald Trump’s half-built golf course at Menie, Aberdeenshire, 2010. Photo copyright Aaron Sneddon, used with permission.

Scotland’s fight against Trump wasn’t about his bulging personality, but corporate power.

Earlier this year Scotland was engaged, if not enthralled, in one of the more progressive parliamentary election campaigns in the wee Parliament’s short history.

At a BBC debate held in March the chair filled out the last few minutes with the apparently obligatory ‘funny question’. The topic: Donald Trump; specifically, what would you do if he phoned you as First Minister?

The speakers, from UKIP to the Greens and everyone in between, were falling over each other to point out just how much they hated Trump.

“Get off my phone”, barked Willie Rennie (Liberal). “Can I have fries with that”, smirked Ruth Cameron (Conservative). “I’m on the other line sorry” retorted Nicola Sturgeon (SNP). Patrick Harvie of the Greens said he’d be speechless and even UKIP’s candidate was scornful. Adopting a somewhat more serious tone Labour’s Kezia Dugdale said she’d get straight to the point: “I’d tell him to stop preaching hate.”

Their chorus was perfectly in tune. The message: Scotland hates bigots and bullies. Scotland hates bigots and bullies so much most of them didn’t event think it was worth taking the question seriously.

The Scottish people do indeed have a strong record of calling out this “racist, xenophobic, misoginistic, odous man”, to quote Patrick Harvie, and we should celebrate this. But it’s high time we also reminded ourselves of how we got here: Scots had to stand up to Trump because Scottish leaders courted him, invited him over, rolled out the red carpet, surrounded him with sycophantic journalists and cut out people and due process to let him have his way.

We had to do something.

So what exactly did Trump do to fall so far out of favour with Scotland? Continue reading

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“I began to feel a little bit shaky”: Charles Lander in the Somme, 100 years ago

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Paul Nash: ‘We Are Making a New World’ (IWM)

100 years ago today began the Battle of the Somme. Few episodes in human history are remembered with such a grand sense of supreme awfulness. But with this grandeur comes distance and incomprehension. As time passes the gulf widens: we need personal stories to bridge it.

My Great Grandfather, Charles Lander, fought in the Somme and recorded his memories in a diary which spanned the whole of the First World War.

A member of the Officer Training Corps when war was declared, Charles would spend 20 months in training before leaving for the Western Front as a junior officer in the British Army.

When he finally did arrive in France in the Spring of 1916 his diary entries are brimming with a sense of fascination and adventure. But as the days go by these stories are increasingly peppered with references to “the coming offensive”. Lengthly preparations are made. He writes, “we handed to the quartermaster letter for home: last letters, which he understood were only to be posted if we were killed.”

It’s 9.30pm on 4th July 1916, and after what must have been an agonising four days in waiting, Charles was given his first order to enter battle. Continue reading

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7 things on Brexit

7 things on Brexit: chinks of light through a constitutional clusterfuck

Good morning readers. Time to eat your brexit: the UK has voted to leave the European Union.

There is a lot to come to terms with, a lot to think about, and a lot to do. Some things we know, and they might help crystallise a vision for how we can go forward.

1. This is a constitutional cluster-fuck

The muddle and mess that is the British constitution will be fully exposed, and may begin to completely unravel in the coming days.

The SNP leadership have indicated an interest in retaining EU membership if the rest of the UK intends to leave. With such a high remain vote in Scotland they have a very strong mandate to do this.

Alternatively if Scotland is ‘dragged out by England’ another referendum on Scottish Independence seems highly likely.

Northern Ireland voted clearly for EU membership and is faced with deep uncertainty about its relationship with the Republic. Northern Ireland will now have to live with an EU border. Nationalists will propose an alternative: a referendum on unification.

The whole tone of the official leave campaign has been about independence for the English. This will surely bolster calls for English Votes for English Laws and other measures to strengthen the political power of England.

Finally and by no means least of all the UK is entering unprecedented series of negotiations with the EU and global trading partners. It seems very likely it will be offered a tough deal, and if so, we may be faced with another referendum on our deal with Europe.

How all of these issues may be resolved is utterly unclear. We should start talking about them right away to offer our solutions: more, not less democracy.

2. The right has been tearing itself apart

This referendum was an accident. The Conservative leadership, outmanoeuvred by its own back bench MPs, and given an unexpected majority in Parliament, set the date of the vote. The already divided tories split their own cabinet over this issue, and senior figures have flown insults left and right at one another. UKIPers have been at each others’ throats, and whilst they have won many arguments on a national level in England and Wales many of their members may now feel the party has lost their raison d’etre.

Meanwhile the left, in Labour, Greens, and nationalists in Scotland and Wales, have been united. This is a huge advantage.

It matters for public perception, but perhaps more importantly for cooperation. We’re still friends with one another, and should build up our alliances to defend human rights, the environment and people who’ve migrated to the UK.

3. We need to steal the initiative

Post election analysis has considered some populist themes of the remain campaign which aren’t inherently regressive.

Many leave campaigners talked angrily about George Osborne’s post-leave-vote ‘punishment budget’ and how they won’t accept further austerity. Osborne’s welfare cuts being removed from the 2016 budget was a key political event of the Spring. We must keep this sentiment alive.

A key theme throughout has been the idea of people being ‘fed up with the establishment and elites telling them what to do’. This can spiral into conspiracy theorydom – but it can also be taken as an anti-corporate, anti-centralisation, and anti-autocracy – very much in tune with Bernie Sanders’ inspiring campaign for US President. They are all strong anti-capitalist, green, progressive themes, and we should adopt them.

4. The fight is on to save the European Court of Human Rights

We will need to grab all of these opportunities to win a future General Election (including if one happens before 2020 – a real possibility now that Cameron has resigned) and to defend worker, migrant and environmental rights as our relationship with our neighbours is redrawn.

Long before it was clear that an EU referendum would take place, the Conservative Party had indicated its intention to leave the European Court of Human Rights and replace it with a ‘British Human Rights Act’. This seems unstoppable now – their story is that this is exactly the kind of ‘red tape’ that the EU forces upon us. We’ve got a fight on our hands to retain basic fundamental rights.

5. Bankers will be crying, fascists will be smiling

The 1% didn’t want this, and they will be somewhat astray for the next weeks and months. This does present an opportunity.

On the other hand, the result is exactly what the far right wanted. They will be gearing up to take to the streets to call for the UK to kick out anyone they don’t like the look of. A wider political movement against Islam and workers who aren’t UK nationals will gain momentum. We will have a job to do to stop it.

We shouldn’t forget that before last week it was some time since a sitting MP had been murdered. This will get worse before it gets better.

6. We will still need our friends in Europe

This vote is a blow for Syriza, Podemos, and other progressive forces in the EU who have been asking for our solidarity in democratising Europe. Their fight remains intrinsically linked with our fight for a Europe that protects human rights and upholds democracy.

7. Referenda aren’t all bad

This campaign, and the fallout of it, have had some appallingly regressive outcomes for the UK. But referenda are not in principle bad.

In Scotland the independence referendum had an incredibly positive impact on political engagement. When people have the chance to vote for something better, progressive change is always possible.

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Note: this article, originally posted at 5am, was updated to accommodate Cameron’s resignation

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The Paris deal did not fix climate change. But we will (and here’s how)

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People from Norway marching in Paris on Saturday as part of “Red Lines”, organised by 350.org. Photo: Ric Lander.

Let’s recap.

Climate change is predicted to kill 250,000 people per year from malnutrition, malaria and other effects from 2010 onwards. These people will predominantly be the poorest.

Rising temperatures and changing weather patterns threaten the life support systems of vulnerable people and will cause an unprecedented global mass extinction of species.

Conflicts inflamed by lack of food and water will destabilise nation states and uproot millions of people, causing mass migrations (sound familiar?).

These changes are mainly caused the the burning of fossil fuels by the worlds’ rich. These fuels are extracted, refined and sold at great profit by private and public companies.

250,000 people every year: a threat so great that world leaders have spent over 20 years deliberating over a solution.

Must politics move so slowly? 130 people are killed in Paris in November, and the UK Government is willing to commit to avenge their deaths in a bombing campaign approved so quickly that the payloads were falling inside of 3 weeks.

Clearly we have a problem, and it’s not just to do with our climate.

Did the deal cut on Saturday solve this problem? Not on your nelly.

The words missing from the Paris Pact: fossil fuels

World leaders signed the Paris Pact, pledging to make “efforts” to limit a global temperature rise to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels.

This number, 1.5oC is both the boldest part of the pact and its deepest betrayal. The very basic aim of the pact – to keep greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a safe level – is totally incommensurate with promised national emissions cuts. The pledged cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, and lets remember how rarely such pledges are kept, add up to a catastrophic 2.7-3.7°C of warming.

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Protesters call for an end to fossil fuel use at the Eiffel Tower. Image: Ric Lander.

The deal makes no mention of any fossil fuels.  Instead the solutions preferred by the UN would have us perpetuate more false solutions:

  • Carbon trading schemes have totally failed to curb emissions in Europe, but are now being introduced in China among other places. They are part of a wider set of policies which privatise natural commons (in this case the air) leaving them to be self-regulated in the custody of markets.
  • Carbon capture and storage schemes aim to allow fossil fuels to burnt as the pollution is removed from the air. Unfortunately they have proved wildly expensive and cannot account for the vast quantities of emissions from the extraction of fossil fuels.
  • ‘Internationally transferred mitigation outcomes’ feature in the deal. These are basically mechanisms whereby rich countries can pay poor countries to do their carbon cuts for them. For the rich it’s a neat solution: developing countries have been offered no-where near the cash they need to face this problem. By using trading schemes the rich keep milking fossils fuels whilst paying the poor to use less.
  • Carbon sinks are explicitly mentioned in the pact, inviting in proposals for potentially dangerous geo-engineering schemes to “suck” greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, as well as ploughing on with the UN’s REDD++ scheme, which encourages poor countries to sell their forests to the rich to enable them to carry on polluting (the people that live in these forests don’t much like this idea).

None of these proposals get to the root of the problem: leaving fossil fuels in the ground. This may be a surprise to those of you who heard the Guardian proclaim the deal marked “the end of the fossil fuel age”.

The deal could have been worse – but that doesn’t make it a victory.

The summit has swelled the egos of politicians and a few NGOs: but the gulf between the stated ambitions of the Paris Pact and its effect is vast, and its the difference between millions of lives. It is a gulf that the media have largely ignored.

A momentous year in the fight for climate justice

We can no longer pretend that fixing climate change is a simple question of putting legal limits in carbon emissions and trusting that everything else will follow.

It must be about taking on vested interests and taking down the companies profiting from this crisis, about standing in solidarity with those affected by opening our borders to those who seek refuge and a home, about getting politicians to put some money up for a just transition which can re-engineer our economies in a way that eases the shut-down for those who work in our dirty industries, and it’s about doing this as a broad social movement, not a science obsessed clique, but a broad a movement with workers and the global poor at its heart.

We are beginning to put these lessons into practice, as 2015 has been a landmark year for the fight for climate justice.

The mass movement of people from Syria throughout Europe as awakened people to the reality of a world with an altering climate, with more and more people fleeing wars fuelled by drought and the ensuing lack of food and water.

The UK Government has been quick to respond by dropping bombs on the problem. This has called for climate activists to become advocates of open borders and migrant rights – and refugee and ant-war activists to join up with environmentalists.

After a shocking victory in May another wake up call came when the new Conservative UK Government binned the remaining renewable energy subsidises, wrecking years of hard won progress to decarbonise Britain’s electricity and heat generation. The more liberal and conservative of the conscientious could no longer pretend “we’re all in this together”. The environment has gotten political again.

At the start of the year the fight against fracking made huge strides as Scotland and Wales joined others globally in putting a moratorium on fracking for gas. This is a social movement doing something virtually unprecedented: stopping fossil fuels from being taken out of the ground. A victory hard won by mass community mobilisation and a dedicated alliances of community groups and NGOs.

In August 1,500 people trespassed onto, and shut down, one of Europe’s most polluting coal mines. 800 people were arrested at “Ende Gelende” (Here and no further), Germany, in an inspiring show of strength by climate activists (watch the video).

In September 350 announced that funds worth $2.6 trillion have now gone “fossil free” with UK student group People & Planet announcing later that 17 British Universities have in some form divested from fossil fuels, driven to move their money by students, staff, petitions and numerous occupations.

The whole year was a torrid time for coal companies in particular. Deprived of customers and investment they held a conference called “Mines and Money” to discuss how the industry could get out of its financial troubles.

In November the Keystone XL oil pipeline, planned to carry ultra-dirty tar sands oil from Canada, was finally scrapped: the first time a major international piece of fossil fuel infrastructure has been beaten by climate campaigners.

Drawing our red lines

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Paris, Saturday: flowers are left for the victims of climate change and red lines mark the limits the climate movement won’t allow politicians to cross. Photo: Ric Lander.

Then at the end of the year people gathered in a historic mobilisation in which 800,000 people took part in towns and cities in 175 countries around the world, marking the start of the UN talks in Paris.

At the end of the talks, determined to have the last word, 15,000 of those people converged on the streets of Paris to reclaim the city from the UN talks and draw red lines – a warning to world leaders that the climate justice movement would not let politicians negotiate away our planet.

Ordinarily this would be unremarkable, but it is just a few weeks after the deadly terrorist attacks and a state of emergency remains in place prohibiting gatherings of 10 or more people. That anything happened on the streets at all in such a highly tense and uneasy atmosphere, on streets thronged with armed police, at all is a small miracle.

The Paris Pact may be a miserable failure.

But it was a victory that we took the streets.

It was a victory that when we did, and when thousands of others marched and took direct action and got in the way this year they did so not to ask politely for world leaders to do something, but to dictate their terms.

We are the ones who will stop climate change.

We are learning how to stop fossil fuels in their tracks, to build a just transition, and to get climate justice. But perhaps the biggest victory of the year is that we’re not asking politely for the politicians do to it for us.

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A thriving, sustainable society needs democratic and accountable banks

By Gemma Bone and Ric Lander

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Bailout protests on Wall Street, New York, 2008. Image credit: Eyewash, Flickr.

 

If we want social change we need to think about finance. To create a society that lives within natural limits we need to fit together some proposals about how we can sustain people and their communities, what infrastructure we need to reform, remove or rebuild, and how we’ll supply the resources we need. We also need to have some pretty bright ideas about how we instigate this change.

Banking and finance should provide the mechanism by which we move around resources in society to instigate such changes. However neoliberal reforms have created a “financial industry” which serves itself and capital – not society. This industry is now the most significant barrier in the way of our efforts to create a sustainable society.

Divestment, the campaign for public investments to be withdrawn from fossil fuel companies, is a first step in challenging this system. It is a shock tactic. The finance and fossil fuel economy, defended by global financiers headquartered in the City of London, a creaking but towering political consensus at Holyrood and Westminster, and its arms and legs: oil, gas and coal companies, will not and cannot be redeployed to invest for the future by gentle persuasion and reasonable argument. So it must be undermined. Divestment allows our institutions and communities – places which are by their scale and nature more human, more responsive – to mark out their territory as moving apart from the fossil fuel power block and part of something new. In doing so they create political and cultural pressure for new thinking.

However this really is only a first step, or rather, one side of the coin. If divestment is the withdrawal of vast sums of money from businesses and organisations which are destroying our collective futures, then we are left with the problem of reinvestment, i.e. where can we channel divested funds to kickstart the radical change that we really need. In other words, if we want a future where society thrives within ecological limits we need a massive redeployment of resources, not just from small public pots, but from big finance too. Our self-serving “financial industry” as it currently stands, is not capable of thinking sustainably over the long term. So banking and finance must be reimagined, redesigned, and rebuilt as democratic and accountable services.

But where do we start with what seems like a colossal challenge, finding alternatives to the neoliberalised finance system? Firstly, we must remind ourselves that even in the UK, which has one of the most concentrated banking sectors in the world, there are some already existing alternatives which are, in some way, ‘better’ than the mainstream. There are the ‘disruptive innovators’ seeking to create new business models which place environmental and social justice at the heart of their practice. The relatively new crowdfunding industry for example, has the potential to circumvent some of the power relations of finance, enabling projects, businesses and renewable technologies to be funded by the ‘crowd’, crucial when bank loans are hard to come by.

Secondly, we can look to other business models for inspiration including the quiet strengths of those local mutual and savings banks who have managed to hang on throughout the ‘big bang’ of 1980’s regulatory reforms, and newer, more ethically focused financial businesses such as Triodos and Abundance who focus specifically on channelling resource to renewable energy production. We can also look to other countries banking structures which put diversity and locality at the (regulated) heart of what they do, such as the Sparkassen in Germany, a network of publically owned and regionally accountable local banks.

What these brief examples show, coupled with the successes of the movement towards divestment, is that there is a cultural push for a systemic change in finance. We no longer expect or accept that the only duty of finance is to create profit no matter what. Divestment campaigners, disruptive innovators and mutual and co-operative supporters are showing that other motivations and values are not secondary, they can and should be at the heart of the purpose of banking and finance. They are challenging the sovereignty of the profit maximisation principle and show that finance is not free from the demands and responsibilities of social and environmental justice, but that instead it can play a crucial role in creating a better society for us all.

This is a huge challenge, but the more we make finance accountable and democratically controlled, the more opportunities we create to invest for the long-term in a thriving sustainable future. We can start this journey by reforming the investment practices of public investors, and setting up community banks and other institutions which can take over and attract investment whilst creating and enabling the fulfilment of social and environmental needs. We need to stand against irresponsible and short-termist finance, take back our collective power and continue to take action on multiple fronts, as pension-holders, voters, consumers, opinion formers and most importantly, citizens.

This article was originally posted in Issue 89 of the Scottish Left Review.

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Going on the offensive – A picture of Scotland’s anti-fracking movement

By Ellen Young and Ric Lander

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“The People’s Voice” anti-fracking rally at Grangemouth, Sunday 7 December 2014. For more info see here.

Community groups have led the way on the path to the moratorium on unconventional fossil-fuels in Scotland, and continue to do so in the ongoing struggle for a full ban. The effective grassroots campaigning of these communities, who have fought the Scottish government and unconventional gas companies, is an inspiring story for those across the UK and the rest of Europe.

Policy shift: independence and persistence

It is not in the nature of national governments to give much thought to the views of communities when planning energy infrastructure. Little of Scotland’s current renewables bounty goes to communities and in the energy boom before that, Scotland’s 20th century North Sea oil bonanza, communities looked on as local councils vied with each to host incoming oil multinationals.

Scotland’s anti-fracking movement has changed all that. People are demanding, not just to be consulted, but to take decisions themselves. How did this happen?

Concerted campaigning by communities has been gradually ramping up the formal political debate on unconventional gas for some years. The ground was laid by groups such as Concerned Communities of Falkirk and Friends of the Earth Scotland who developed considerable technical knowledge and local support focused not around fracking, but a ruling over coal-bed methane drilling. The Falkirk community secured thousands of objections to the proposals and when the local government dithered on the case, a public inquiry was called: a tense and costly legal battle which pitched big industry against local people. Unconventional gas stayed in the news as new shale drilling licences were issued, raising the spectre of fracking in central Scotland.

Throughout 2014 Scotland was getting wise to the clever tricks of industry barons and politicians who would say one thing to business and another to the voters. The story of what was going on in Falkirk was passed around from doorsteps to public meetings to TV debates and back. In Scotland’s independence referendum debate, people were angry about having policies imposed upon them from London, but they were also getting angry about having policies imposed upon them from anywhere. Scotland’s independence debate created new local political spaces, and fracking and Falkirk’s fight were just the kind of injustices that people wanted to talk about.

A true social movement

Scotland’s flourishing town hall democratic spirit did not end with the “No” vote on Scottish independence. Instead newly created groups like the Radical Independence were chomping at the bit for a new way to exert their power. They almost brought down a 300 year-old union of nations – surely they could do away with fracking. The fight of a few plucky campaigners was turning into a true social movement.

At the same time, immediately after the referendum, political parties negotiated new powers for the Scottish Parliament to approve on-shore oil and gas licences. No longer could any excuse be made that fracking was being “imposed” on Scotland by the UK Government. There was no ambiguity: fracking could now be stopped at home.

Into this fray Scotland’s two biggest political parties installed new populist leaders: Jim Murphy for Labour and Nicola Sturgeon for the SNP, Sturgeon with a new focus on inequality and Murphy seemingly hell-bent on supporting any policy that sounded popular (his first policy announcement was to remove the ban on alcohol at football matches). More than ever both parties were keen to put as much distance between themselves and that of the Conservative-led, pro-fracking, UK Government.

Thousands of letters were signed to SNP and Labour leaders. Local MPs and MSPs were lobbied. Events and conferences were organised. Demonstrations were held at oil refineries. Communities were being very noisy, and their voices were being amplified by a newly attentive Scottish media.

The pieces moved at the end of January.

Scottish Labour announced a new policy to give local referendums on fracking proposals, the SNP immediately moved to support a UK-wide moratorium, and three days later the Energy Minister Fergus Ewing told the Scottish Parliament: “from today there will be a moratorium on all unconventional oil and gas extraction.”

Two years ago the message local communities heard was “don’t worry about fracking, the government is taking care of it.” Now Scottish politicians are outdoing each other to see who can claim to respond best to the community’s views.

Falkirk: a large scale mobilisation

The campaign in Scotland has been built around local groups of people coming together to protect where they live. Initially fighting the industry planning application by planning application, the movement has grown until it has been able to go on the offensive.

Leading the way have been the Concerned Communities of Falkirk. In 2012 they co-created an objection letter to a coal-bed methane drilling proposal through large democratically-run public meetings. The letter was signed by over 2,500 residents and contributed to the largest response to a planning application the local council had ever seen. The resulting escalation led to a public inquiry: when the Government Minister told them “communities are capable of representing themselves” they raised £70,000 for a lawyer to oppose the gas company’s top legal team. They also co-created a community charter setting out “all the things in our local area which residents have agreed are fundamental to the present and future health of our communities” and are working on creating a community chartering network, where the ‘cultural heritage’ they define can be defended under European law to help ensure sustainable development in other communities.

Falkirk’s lead has been taken up by communities at risk from across the country.  The mobilisation of large numbers of people is now a clear characteristic of the movement in Scotland.

Anti-fracking community

As stated, the referendum on Scottish independence was critical: with awareness spread through new media and public debate, and new groups and spaces for debate and action born.  Frack Off UK, a resource and contact point for activists across the UK, reported ‘in the weeks following the referendum there were new anti-fracking community groups forming daily in Scotland.”

There are now over 50 community groups across the central belt of Scotland, some formed proactively over shale gas fields, others as issue-based campaign groups in cities and elsewhere. As well as helping achieve huge national policy shifts, new groups and activists have taken forward local fights from longer-active campaigners to tackle the industry on individual planning applications.

Although highly decentralised, community groups have also come together to collectively articulate their shared concerns at crucial points in the campaign. The Broad Alliance, which is a coalition of 30 community groups, published a number of influential open letters in the national press demanding a moratorium. They have also successfully demanded to be part of the stakeholder consultation process of the moratorium, originally reserved for industry and established NGOs.

Right now communities are making their impact on the ‘engagement’ efforts of the companies.

Ineos, the biggest player in the Scottish unconventional gas industry, is carrying out a ‘community engagement’ tour meeting residents in libraries and at one-to-one meetings, and promising to share £ 2.5 billion of its profits with communities who accept drilling in their vicinity.  As well as previously dismissing concerns about fracking, Ineos are deeply unpopular following a recent union battle in which billionaire company-owner Jim Ratcliffe threatened to shut Scotland’s largest oil refinery.

The new narrative of engagement is nothing more than a thinly disguised PR exercise, and offers nothing in the way of meaningful engagement with communities. The result: it has been followed at every stop by activists and residents asking detailed technical questions, holding protests, and staging walk-outs.

The road ahead: inquiries, consultations, social change?

Engagement from companies and weak promises of a regulated fracking industry have been rejected in Scotland. People now expect communities to have their say. How does the Government see this happening?

When announcing the moratorium, the Scottish Government also all announced an inquiry on potential public health impacts and a public consultation. There are initial concerns that the health inquiry may be seriously rushed, and there are troubling questions over how long-term impacts like cancer rates can be honestly assessed. Public consultations are often tokenistic affairs, and communities will need to mobilise strong support to make an irrefutable case.  In an aborted consultative effort in 2013 the Scottish Government tried to placate initial concerns about drilling by proposing loose “buffer zones”, but opted not to engage community groups on their size, instead delegating the decision the drilling companies themselves.  Much of this campaign has been bitterly hard-fought, and communities are well aware that the moratorium could disappear very quickly if it the debate cools down.

There is much to be done to achieve a complete ban on all forms of unconventional fossil-fuels in Scotland.  The moratorium is a huge achievement, and so is the level of mobilisation on this issue.  The people have become powerful, but the industry, and their government insiders, have not yet been beaten.

Resistance beyond the border

If Scotland completes its journey to a ban on fracking and unconventional oil and gas, will the rest of the UK follow?

There has already been a significant spillover effect to the debate in Wales, with restrictions on fracking promised shortly after Scotland’s policy shift.

Experience in England is more sobering. A local moratorium in Blackpool, which followed earthquakes caused by fracking, lasted less than a year. Opposition is widespread and angry, but is largely focused on local fights. The UK’s biggest political parties were broadly pro-fracking going into May’s General Election, and bolstered by an unexpectedly strong election victory, the Conservatives are likely to run one of the most pro-fracking governments in Europe. The SNP’s landslide victory in the General Election, winning all but three seats in Scotland, provides hope for some, yet despite imposing the moratorium in Scotland their stance on fracking still remains ambiguous and the impact they could have on a Conservative majority government remains uncertain.  Scottish communities can, and will, inspire battles in the rest of the UK, but they cannot lead them.

In Europe, despite moratoriums in France and Germany, the level of mobilisation in Scotland is still seen as something to aspire to.  This hard working and highly effective Scottish community movement can clearly be a leading light to many others globally.

Activists who began fighting drilling proposals were shocked into action by stories of acute health and environmental impacts in America and Australia.  The movement those campaigners build is now as much about sovereignty and democracy.  What other victories can this inspire?

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Reposts

Your kindness could kill

By Amie Robertson and Ric Lander

ipswich_poster

A poster in a Sainsburys in Ipswich, Suffolk, reads “could you spare 20p for a cup of tea? How about £10 for a bag of heroin? £12 for a rock of crack?”

The poster asks people to donate to a local homeless fund and gives a contact for Streetlink, who offer services to homeless people.

Demonising people who are begging under the guise of helping homeless people is not a new tactic for the police, but for homeless charities the emphasis of this campaign is part of a new, worrying trend.

Flyers designed to accompany the poster campaign read “in a recent radio programme one person claimed he could earn up to £150 per day.” No further evidence is offered.

Getting the facts straight

The campaign seems to rely on two core assertions: that “most people sleeping rough do not beg” and secondly that “most people begging do not sleep rough.”

We are invited to infer from these statements that homeless people are the deserving poor, people begging are drug addicts, and these are two different groups of people. Or to put it another way, people begging on the street are drug addicts pretending to be homeless.

Is it true that “most people sleeping rough do not beg”?

On the face of it, the 2011 Complex Lives study, coordinated by the UK Government Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), appears to agree with this statement. Its comprehensive study in seven UK cities found that 32% of homeless people reported having begged.

However, the study also found that begging was typically something that people engaged in “in the middle-late phase of homelessness.” This is vital because it suggest that people are only likely to resort to begging if they have been homeless for some time. The study also suggests that people in such situations are more likely to be cut off from society in other ways, more in need of help.

What about the second claim, that “most people begging do not sleep rough”?

Homeless charity Thames Reach takes this claim further saying that “the link is between begging and drug and alcohol misuse, not homelessness and begging, nor even homelessness and drugs.”

Again the ESRC study suggests this is misleading. It found that over time there was a close relationship between homelessness and begging: “there is a strong overlap between experiences of more extreme forms of homelessness and other support needs, with nearly half of service users reporting experience of institutional care, substance misuse, and street activities (such as begging), as well as homelessness.”

To be clear, it is not that there is no relationship between substance abuse and begging, or substance abuse and homelessness. It would not be fair to say that people begging on the street aren’t going to spend any of their money on drugs. It probably is safer to offer food, blankets or a hot drink, instead of money.

What is important here is that these posters imply that people begging are “frauds” and “not real homeless people” without offering clear evidence for this idea and with little apparent concern about the impact of pasting these false claims all over the streets.

Those involved appear to have thought little of the demonising effect of their campaign. For the sake of raising a few pennies these charities are selling the dignity of the very people they exist to help.

Surely we can help those suffering on the streets without erecting media campaigns further stereotyping an already extremely vulnerable group and stopping one of their few options for generating their own income.

We’ve all heard the stereotyping, that friend you have that tells you the supposed “Romanians” you see on the street “aren’t actually homeless”. These posters purposefully support the image of people on the streets as criminals and liars. Surely this is what we must collectively fight against?

A poster copied across England

How did it come to this? How did homeless charities hit on the idea of asking for people to donate by text, and turn away from people begging.

The poster seems to have originated from London-based Thames Reach. Their “your kindness can kill” campaign has been running since 2003, and they have extensive web-pages explaining it.

Thames Reach’s original design has since been remodelled and reworked by many councils in England, including Manchester, York, Liverpool, Cheshire, Kent, Bournemouth, and Exeter. Although Suffolk is a notable exception, most councils seem to have used less aggressive language than Thames Reach’s original design.

lydia_james_manchester-1A version of the posters in Manchester. Image: Lydia James/caption]

Why are these campaigns supported?

One can’t escape the feeling that these campaigns continue to be successful primarily because they make “the rest of us” feel more comfortable doing what most people are already doing: ignoring people on the street.

One Oxford University student told a student paper: “I feel ashamed when I see tourists who come to Oxford having to walk past beggars and homeless people on the streets. What sort of impression does this give of our city and our society as a whole?”

Jeremy Swain, Chief Executive of the London charity who invented the posters, Thames Reach, told The Guardian in 2013 that he wants to stop begging because “because of the incontrovertible evidence that the vast majority of people begging on the streets are doing so in order to purchase hard drugs.” But he goes on “I have stopped giving to beggars for another reason too. It is, I’m afraid, because I’m sick of them. One of the regulars round my way, a bit clever, fag in hand, became so persistent, so intrusive, that I got quite hostile, dismissing him with the same curt tone I find myself using with cold callers who plague my phone.”

Concern that the posters exacerbate negative images of people on the street made the campaign controversial when it launched in the City of Oxford. City Councillor Sam Hollick told us: “These posters seem more focussed on preventing people asking for money in the street than addressing the problems that cause people to do it. The message of the posters reinforces the idea in people’s minds that any interaction with someone in the street asking for money is with an addict, and is somehow dangerous. This only increases the gulf between people who are homeless and those who aren’t, which can cause a hardening of attitudes against people worst hit by societies problems.”

A City Council run review of the Oxford campaign highlighted other problems. The evaluation found concern, from people begging themselves and service providers, that the campaign would “affect trust-based relationships with the beggars”, have an unfair impact on the minority of people begging who did so for necessities, and encourage people to turn to crime for income. There is also some evidence that these campaigns don’t have a significant effect on giving to homeless charities.

Kindness doesn’t kill

There is compounding evidence that homelessness is linked to volatile life circumstances which would often already cause high levels of social stigmatisation. These can lead to a variation of homeless experience where form of income has to be navigated outside safety of permanent or even regular residence.

Homogenising homeless experiences into one stereotypical understanding is not only patronising but ignorant.

Further categorising those self identifying as homeless into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ only propels the stigmatisation of those in the most vulnerable positions, often without the connections to such caring organisations, and indeed pushes them further away from any kind of inclusion into society.

There is not enough social housing in Britain; cutbacks to public sector spending is closing some of the most critical care and rehabilitation centres; we are becoming the imprisonment capital of Europe; and the welfare state is being violently eroded whilst at the same time wages have never been so low and insecure.

This is a way of constructing society that WILL make people homeless, and yet charities on the front line of care provision for those within this traumatic experience are concerning themselves with making money by demonising those they seek to represent.

If this is the true face of austerity then God help us.

Or better yet, let’s help each other. Suspicious and dividing narratives like these only serve to enforce a more individualistic society where governments can further enforce draconian policies in the knowledge that our communities are fractured and in judgement of each other.

Giving your pound to those begging on the street will not solve anything. In fact the best that money will do is absolve your guilt for the next ten minutes until you see that someone else that has been forced into the street within this system which you remain economically privileged within.

However, as a man begging outside Haymarket Station, Edinburgh, so rightly put it, “it’s no about wanting all your money, but at least see me as a person.” Stopping to give someone the time of day on the street is a radical act of change in a society that demands we see each other as competition for the recourses those in authority refuse to give us. When we acknowledge that specific people on the street will often have experienced violent circumstances and stigmatisation within their daily life, it’s not just a radical act, but a way of resisting their further subjugation.

They are not just ‘beggars’, they are our brothers, our uncles, our aunties and our mothers, and their lives did not begin when they sat down and asked you for a spare bit of change.

I do not believe our kindness could kill, but rather that it could be transformative. Let our daily conversations become the building blocks for community organising where those affected by such issues are brought to the front line of grass-roots resistance against discrimination, and we work together to create an alternative society that puts the resources available in the public hands.

Oh, and what happened to that poster in the Sainsbury’s in Ipswich?

After the picture was shared widely on Facebook, Wesley Hall, a volunteer for Help the Homeless called up the shop asking for it to be removed. Although only put up that morning, the manager agreed to take the poster down.

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