Just Stop Oil look to the electoral arena?

Over the last two years, the environmental activist group Just Stop Oil (JSO) has engaged in various forms of direct action to try and raise public awareness of the climate crisis. JSO actions have included disrupting sports events, blocking roads, and protest stunts in art galleries. Hundreds of arrests have been made with some protestors facing long prison sentences.

But capitalist politicians haven’t shifted. In Britain, Sunak’s Tory government has pushed ahead with granting new licences for North Sea oil and gas exploration. Starmer’s Labour has dropped much of its promised ‘green investment’ plans, saying that ‘fiscal responsibility’ has to come first. Meanwhile, in 2023 global temperatures have already exceeded the critical threshold of 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

Floods, wildfires and droughts caused by climate change are already displacing millions of people from their homes. The number of ‘climate refugees’ could exceed one billion by 2050 if present trends continue. At the same time, new research suggests that the accelerating melting of polar ice has increased the risk of a collapse in Atlantic Ocean currents, which would lead to temperatures plunging by around 10C in Britain.

Urgent action is certainly needed to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change. But how can that be achieved when big business and the fossil fuel industries continue to put short-term profits before global climate emergency?

A debate is taking place amongst climate change activists about the best strategy for them to follow. That doesn’t signal an end to ‘direct action’ but does appear to recognise that the environmental movement needs to build support more widely amongst their communities.

One new initiative is the ‘Climate Majority Project’, co-led by Rupert Read, a former Green Party Norwich councillor and parliamentary candidate and one-time spokesperson for the Extinction Rebellion campaign. At a recent meeting in Cumbria, Read laid out a strategy aimed at winning over a ‘climate majority’ across ‘different political opinions’ to ensure that the necessary urgent action is taken.

Read included ‘the working-class’ as a section of the community that needs to be won to the ‘climate majority’. He seemed to recognise that climate activists risk alienating low-paid workers by putting an emphasis on individuals cutting down on their own emissions. But working-class families who can’t afford to buy an expensive hybrid car or a new boiler, nor to lose their job in a fossil fuel industry, can see this as just yet another attack on their already deteriorating standard of living. Instead, Read emphasised that climate activists need to stress that climate change needed to be combated through measures, such as home insulation, that could be seen as a benefit to working families, rather than a burden.

But how will a programme of home insulation, green jobs, public transport and other such urgent ‘mitigation’ measures be implemented? This is where Read’s non-class based approach to building a ‘climate majority’ falls apart. The Climate Majority Project website talks of “shifting the public narrative about climate change towards the truth, through skilful messaging” and how they will “gather funding from visionary ‘investors’, to support entrepreneurs of citizen climate action with essential finance, strategic and practical input, and access to a network”.

Socialists need to patiently explain that no amount of ‘skilful messaging’ will persuade crumbling British capitalism to put the needs of the global climate ahead of the demands of the global financial markets. Read’s hope that governments will ‘regulate business’ to ensure climate action is taken is, on a capitalist basis, wishful thinking. Given the state of the climate emergency, we need more decisive action.

The only way that production can be redirected in the urgent way that is needed is as part of a socialist plan of production, based on nationalisation and democratic workers’ control. Transport, water, energy and social housing need to be brought into public ownership so that local communities and national governments could democratically decide together what actions were needed – and implement them, locally, nationally, and globally.

Just Stop Oil also doesn’t express such a socialist perspective, but, unlike more ‘moderate’ campaigners like Read who are wary of upsetting potential ‘green’ political allies, JSO make absolutely clear that they have little faith in our current capitalist politicians. They are also starting to link the climate emergency with other threats to working-class lives like the collapse of the NHS, unaffordable homes, and the war in Gaza.

The JSO website opens with: “Politicians are failing us. The NHS is being dismantled, the rivers are full of shit, and nothing works any more. We didn’t ask for genocide or climate collapse. We didn’t ask for starving children, foodbanks, or sky-high rents. Politicians are out of control and out of touch, so let’s kick them out”.

JSO are taking a turn towards the electoral arena to get their message across. The Guardian carried an opinion piece by JSO’s co-founder Sarah Lunnon criticising both Sunak and Starmer alike. She asks the question that millions of disenfranchised voters are asking: “If the Labour party in opposition, with a massive lead in the polls, cannot stand up to the Daily Mail, the finance sector and the Tufton Street thinktanks, how is it going to pursue a radical programme to protect us from the coming storm?”

The Rochdale by-election was a ‘test-run’ for JSO standing its own candidates, with Mark Coleman standing as one of several ‘independent’ candidates challenging the establishment parties. His leaflet correctly made clear that “Labour in power won’t be on our side” and that “ordinary people shouldn’t have to pay for clean air”. It called for free home insulation and retrofitting, help to switch to electric vehicles, and free, electric local public transport – to be paid by the “obscene profits” of ‘Big Oil’.

Coleman’s 455 votes was a respectable enough vote, although far behind the 12,335 polled by the victorious George Galloway standing on the Workers Party of Britain ticket. A successful electoral stand needs to raise the concrete demands for action on the immediate issues of Gaza, inadequate housing, poverty, and the crumbling NHS, as well as the climate crisis.

But most importantly – for both Just Stop Oil activists and George Galloway alike – electoral interventions, and any successes achieved, must be seen as part of a campaign for a new mass workers’ party to organise communities against the attacks we face and provide a potential governmental alternative to the capitalist establishment politicians. Trade unions, who have shown their potential strength to move millions through the strike action taken over the last eighteen months, will be key to such a party and they are bodies that JSO should turn to as well.

Martin Powell-Davies