Last night, ITV cameras caught Extinction Rebellion protesters standing on top of tube trains on the Jubilee line at Canning Town. Judging by the footage, the protest was not a success. Prospective passengers on the platform got so angry with the protestors, one of the XR chaps got physically dragged off the top of the train.
A lot of people I respect in the bubble tell me that Extinction Rebellion is “winning”; they fall back on the “any news is good news’ axiom to support this theory most of the time. I think any news is good news if you’re trying to sell movie tickets, or books, or want more Twitter followers. I don’t think it works when applied to politics. Lots of news can be bad news in politics. Just ask any cabinet member after they have been doorstepped following a wrong move by the sitting prime minister.
The things I think are wrong with Extinction Rebellion I could pretty much apply verbatim to the greater left. A feeling that the louder you shout, the bigger you go and the purer you are, the more you achieve. Despite this being proven wrong over and over again, they are convinced they are following the right path again.
Public policy is difficult and almost always involves messy compromise to get things done right. The extremes presented by the right and the left rarely survive intact upon contact with reality. Climate change is one of the great challenges the human race faces in the 21st century, if not the biggest. With the greatest respect, the solutions to it will not be advanced by people pretending to be vegetables, doing interpretive dance in Trafalgar Square, or stopping people taking the tube.
There were two things that made the tube demonstration last night such a disaster for Rebellion Extinction, and they both neatly relate back to the problems of the wider left. One, it brought them into conflict, not with the big wigs they supposedly detest, but with working people. This is a classic problem the left faces: they want to wake the working classes up from their “false consciousness”, but it turns out when you try and do this, the plebs grab your ankles and pull you down from your self-appointed stage. You think they are your allies in the struggle you have conjured up and then they turn around and think you’re a middle-class wanker with time and money to burn.
The second thing that made the tube demonstration a disaster is it exposed the larger game to detrimental effect.
People taking the tube is much better for the environment than having them all drive wherever they are going, so you might be forgiven for wondering why the hell Extinction Rebellion, which is supposed to be all about saving the environment, would pick on the Underground as a target. Like I say, it gives a lot of the game away. Too many of the Extinction Rebellion protestors see bringing down capitalism and ushering in a socialist utopia as synonymous with saving the planet, just as most of the wider left don’t think any change to the system is sufficient, no matter how immediately beneficial in the short term – we just need to tear the whole system down instead.
Socialism won’t save the planet, for a start. If you don’t believe me, just google “Aral Sea” and read for yourself about the wonders 20th century socialism brought to the environment. More to the point, we don’t have time to piss around with full blown revolution in order to halt climate change. You need to start making changes right now. Which involves negotiations with power, compromise, people in suits, lobbying, real public policy thinking – not stopping people from taking the tube by standing on top of the train carriage.
As Extinction Rebellion risks climate change being dismissed as some wanky sideshow for middle class Guardian readers, so too do the legitimate concerns of the left – stagnating wages and living conditions for most people in Britain – risk getting taken down by the right winning again, largely off the back of the left choosing wrongheaded tactics. Hearts and minds, chaps. It mind sound boring, but it works.