What Labour needs to learn from the divestment and anti-fracking movements

Movements to divest from fossil fuels and oppose fracking have cut a path which Labour should follow.

Barry Gardiner
20 August 2015

A man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho is robbed and beaten and left for dead. Two men, a Priest and a then a Levite, walk by, crossing to the other side of the road to avoid any contact with him. Eventually the poor man is rescued by a Samaritan who even pays for his recovery.

We tend to think that the parable of the Good Samaritan is about the Samaritan – a man from a despised and alien culture doing the right thing; the appearance of grace in unexpected places.

In fact it’s really a cautionary tale about the establishment. The rules of the establishment were absolutely clear: a Priest or Levite, as a member of the Temple Cult, was doing exactly the right thing by avoiding contact with a bleeding man by the side of the road. To go against that orthodoxy would have made them ritually unclean and defiled them, making them unable to carry out their priestly functions.

The meaning of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that solidarity, not a set of policy rules, is the best guide to what is right. In fact policy is simply a tool for achieving solidarity. As such policy will change as time and circumstance changes. The purpose of policy however, is unchanging. It is to build solidarity, to realise compassion and to bring about justice.  It is a lesson that we in the Labour party desperately need to remember as we rebuild our movement.

The last Labour government recognised that old orthodoxies were restricting our ability to tackle injustice. That’s why we set up the Delivery Unit, which gave us most of Labour’s great radical successes. If we recognise an injustice but our rules make it impossible to do anything about it, then change the rules.

I have spent the past 18 years in Parliament, as both minister and backbencher working against the degradation of our environment and the effects of climate change. Over this time my party has delivered the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, created the world’s largest marine protected area in the British Indian Overseas Territories, planted the New National Forest in former coal mining communities, legislated for the the England Coast Path and passed the legally binding Climate Change Act that defines climate change as the great injustice of our time. But despite all this, the party orthodoxy remains that relegates environmental issues to the status of second order problems. They are not.

The Divestment and anti-fracking movements are part of a broader movement based on solidarity in the face of injustice. They are fighting battles every bit as important as our forebears who went on the mass trespass at Kinder Scout. They are fighting our battles; and they are winning. They are the harbingers of new challenges: the radical decentralisation of energy, deflating the so-called ‘carbon bubble’, insulating every leaky cold home in the country and  keeping fossil fuels in the ground.

We need to turn to social movements that are achieving success without power, because for the next five years we are an opposition party without power and we will have to work together in solidarity with those who are used to achieving progress by force of argument alone.

The Divestment movement has shown how power can be wrestled back from universities, companies and even the Church of England when members or employees get organised. They have shown that it is possible to build a diverse mass movement around an intractable problem so long as what you are calling for will make a difference and you know how to win. 

The anti-fracking movement has shown that a community can still be more powerful than business and Government combined. Successfully maintaining a moratorium on new shale gas development whilst the Government is calling for a new dash for gas.

Both of these movements have successfully combined the power of communities that live and work together with the power of online communities. Both are now just beginning to garner support from the establishment, with the Divestment movement endorsed by the Governor of the Bank of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury; and the anti-fracking movement supported by the majority of Members of Parliament.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is Jesus’ response to the question “who is my neighbour?” His radical answer is: the person who acts in solidarity, shows compassion and does the right thing in defiance of orthodox policy. The greatest global challenges of this century will focus around energy security, food security and water security. Climate change provides the changing context in which these resource security issues become problems of human solidarity. The mission of the Labour party is not for us to be the guardians of orthodox policy positions. The mission of the Labour Movement must always be to express solidarity with those who share our struggles.

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