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By claiming to be 'beyond politics', Extinction Rebellion is undermining its own cause

Transcending the tribalism of party politics is a laudable aim. But during the most important election of a generation, blind neutrality is absurd.

Paddy Bettington
29 November 2019
Image: Pacific Press/SIPA USA/PA Images

For too long, no major party has met the climate crisis with the seriousness and urgency it demands. But this year, in response to the IPCC report, the incredible grassroots campaigning around a Green New Deal, the inspiring Youth Climate Strikes, and undoubtedly, Extinction Rebellion (XR), the political landscape has finally shifted.

XR has tried to put itself ‘beyond politics’, steering clear of parliamentary machinations, in a bid to broaden its appeal and express the urgency and scale of the crisis to as many people as possible. But with the most important election of a generation looming in the UK, is it now time for XR to use its reach to grapple directly with the workings of this country?

This is a plea to everyone in XR, both the rebels on the ground and those in organising and leadership roles. It is a plea not to abandon their principles, but to uphold them to their fullest.

Tell The Truth

Telling the truth cannot be limited to the state of the climate and environment. It cannot stop at shining a light on the catastrophe that awaits us in lieu of meaningful change, nor at showing people that the problems are systemic and that parliamentary politics, on all sides, has failed us.

We must also tell other truths. Flawed as it is, parliamentary politics is unlikely to be overthrown in the next two weeks. Certain parties have a practical chance of forming a government, while others do not. Among these parties, there are now very real and meaningful differences on environmental policy, from complete acceptance and support of the status quo, to tangible policies that tackle both the climate crisis and the economic systems that created it.

We must also recognise that some the leaders of some parties have openly supported XR, while others have openly mocked them and illegally blocked their protests.

Act Now

There is no time to waste. Every day we do not act reduces our chances of averting the worst effects of climate collapse. Another five years of a the status quo, with a government that has no meaningful climate agenda and which has undone the feeblest gains of the previous government, will see those chances carved to nothing.

We cannot afford to tightrope tentatively above the fray of party politics, hoping to preserve the longevity of the rebellion, if doing so dooms the entire movement to failure. If this movement cannot survive direct engagement with the world as it exists, on its single founding issue, then it is worthless.

Beyond Politics

Transcending the tribalism of party politics is laudable, but skirting around it in order to protect XR is simply tribalism in another form. XR should not be driven by the wish for a Labour Government or a Green government. Equally, XR should not be driven by the desire to expand and preserve itself. It should be driven by the absolute need to avert catastrophe. We should take actions that will further that end and that end only.

Making this election the #ClimateElection is a positive and powerful idea, but the persistent push to enforce ‘neutrality’ stifles rebels from speaking openly about a political party. The result is that the people most passionate about addressing this crisis are kept out of the conversation. To truly make this the climate election, XR needs to actively create the conditions for rebels to have meaningful discourse about party politics without falling foul of XR’s core principles.

This means looking at each party’s policies, holding them to the light and appraising them honestly. Objectivity is commendable, but blind neutrality is absurd; treating unequal positions equally is not objective. XR is perfectly positioned to inform not just rebels but the entire electorate of the value of each party’s environmental programme. Supporting the radical aspects of a parties’ manifestos is not the same as unconditional support of that party, just as supporting Gay Marriage was not an endorsement of the Conservatives.

We cannot merely wish away realities; protest alone will not stop climate breakdown. We must organise to enact real change. Pretending that this election is not an opportunity for such change is nothing but wilful ignorance. Failing to objectively assess and contrast the environmental policies of each party fetishises the principle of ‘beyond politics’ and puts it above our only reason to exist; averting climate catastrophe.

On December the 13th, no matter who is in government, XR should continue to rebel and force the issue of climate breakdown as before. But, for two weeks, XR has the power to influence the outcome of this election so that it is closest to what people across our planet need.

To do so with anything other than the full bravery, urgency, love and rage with which the movement has acted so far is a betrayal of the time, energy and emotion that so many have invested so far. An objective but frank review of each party’s manifesto will surely reveal which are worth fighting for. We can't afford to stand, impartial on the sidelines; we must have that fight.

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