After years of neglect, rural voters are abandoning the Tories and Labour to back a radical green conservation movement

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of this year's UK general election, if the polls are to be believed, is the resurgent far right. Nigel Farage's Brexit Party failed to win a single seat in 2019 but this time around its successor, Reform UK, is tipped by YouGov to scoop up five.

Reform's expected success is partly a reaction to the government's adoption of a number of climate policies and the reality of the transition to a net zero economy promised by both Labour and the Tories (even if neither party goes anywhere near far enough on this).

Yet dig a little deeper and another new political movement is sweeping the country - and receiving far less media attention.

Recent years have seen radical climate movements and more reactionary, right-wing conservation protests by farmers and local communities explode across Europe. In Britain, a similar movement is emerging. While it has much in common with these European demonstrations, it is, for the most part, broadly progressive, populist and built on a specific legacy - that of Extinction Rebellion (XR).

The UK movement is largely invisible - making the news only when climate campaigners succeed in shutting down a motorway, or when journalists decry the seeming paradox of rural Green voters campaigning against new solar farms.

In the latter cases, journalists and much of the left argue that these protesters are actually disaffected Tories - economic conservatives who happen to like trees and picturesque landscapes. The protests of these so-called 'middle-class NIMBYs' are for the large part considered little more than local affairs.

The Conservative Environment Network, however, warns its members to not under-estimate this new green movement, describing the Green Party as a genuine threat to the Tories in the rural seats the party has long held. The environment is important to local residents across these electorates, and the Greens, it argues, have a deep organisational capacity and the ability to run strong local campaigns.

While some former Conservatives are deciding to support the Greens, far more are switching to the Labour Party or planning to not vote at all. In reality, many of the Green Party's new supporters are former Labour voters left politically homeless by Keir Starmer pushing the party rightwards. For every Tory voter the Greens attract, two Labour voters also switch to the party.

There is another reason why voters from both major parties are turning to the Greens. The story of this election in small towns and villages in rural counties is one of deep neglect over recent decades. Poverty is high, while investment in services is dismal or non-existent. There is a pervasive feeling among residents that Westminster is largely indifferent to their suffering. At the same time, there are mounting climate impacts such as increasing floods, and a feeling that this political neglect will only worsen as these disasters - and the costs they inflict on local people - become more common.

It is in this context that the Greens are making gains, making the party confident that it can win more votes than ever before, and perhaps upwards of four MPs. But this is in many ways just one visible moment in a much bigger story.

Driving the movement

For journalists in London, it might seem odd to demand action on climate while opposing a giant solar farm on the edge of your town. For them, climate politics has become largely dry policy work - environmentalism without nature, where what counts is carbon, not birdsong or trees or being able to walk through the woods without having to dodge gamekeepers and barbed wire fences.

But for the single parent in social housing in Braintree or the truck driver in East Bergholt, the environment is not an abstract thing to protect, it's the field on the edge of the village or the river they see every day.

It would be a mistake to view these campaigns as merely about 'saving' green space. As important is the difference between appropriate development and bad development. Speaking of the reactions from voters he witnessed while door-knocking, Greens co-leader Adrian Ramsey said: "People regularly raised housing and development. Too often, they see homes being built that are too expensive...without investment in local infrastructure... They are being priced out of their own community."

Underpinning the Green vote is a broader movement against the further destruction of the local environment and a sense of local power. These voters oppose development when there is no affordable housing provision in developers' plans, or when woodlands will be cut down to build a by-pass that no one living in its way wants, or when fields will have to be dug up to supply London with off-shore wind farm power, or when a proposed solar farm will span 400 acres of fenced-off land while providing only two local jobs.

The Extinction Rebellion legacy

The new green movement is in part a legacy of both the organisational successes and political impasse of XR, which was founded in October 2018 and reshaped environmental politics in the UK. Built on the idea of mass organising and direct action protests, the group sought to tell the public the truth about the climate crisis and demand politicians act.

XR managed to draw in dissatisfied members of existing local group networks, such as Friends of the Earth and Amnesty International, and tens of thousands of people who had never been politically active before. Many of these new activists were based in places no other group had previously organised - from small towns to coastal communities and rural villages. At its peak, XR had more than 420 local British chapters with upwards of 25,000 members, as well as a massive virtual membership of over 130,000 people. Some 60% of XR members vote Green.

Yet despite Parliament declaring a climate and environmental emergency in May 2019, XR failed to force the government to take meaningful action to achieve its net zero goals. Ministers instead cracked down on protesters - increasingly arresting people for taking part in climate demonstrations - and XR began to drift.

On the last day of 2022, the group released a statement titled 'We quit'. In it, it made clear that its actions had not been enough, saying:

"Despite the blaring alarm on the climate and ecological emergency ringing loud and clear, very little has changed. Emissions continue to rise and our planet is dying at an accelerated rate.

"The root causes? A financial system prioritising profits over life, a media failing to inform the public and hold power to account, and a reckless government entrenched in corruption and suppressing the right to protest injustice."

As XR ground to a halt, it left behind a legacy: a vast number of people across the UK who brought a largely left-leaning perspective to environmental issues and had experience and training in campaigning and organising.

Crucially, XR's legacy is a largely populist one that rejects existing political institutions at a national level, while embracing localised political action, including local government. It's often activists from this network who are now running local environmental campaigns, climbing trees to bring down Tory councils, or blocking poorly designed solar farm proposals.

A new conservationism?

Movements cohere around a combination of shared concerns and compelling demands, but they build momentum through victories. And the green movement emerging across Britain has already secured a number of victories - from successfully stopping developments to the recent mass mobilisations of the nascent Right to Roam movement, which has drawn in thousands of people in a bid for access to the natural world, a new conservationism is building.

The common thread weaving together these victories is that nature should not be sacrificed anymore than local communities should continue to be neglected.

Neglect underpinned the Brexit vote and is similarly driving the growing support for the Reform UK Party. But neglect - along with XR's legacy - is also behind a very different political response. In interview after interview, older voters across the UK tell journalists that their vote for the Greens is not a vote for themselves - it is a vote for their children and grandchildren.

In a small town in rural Suffolk, 81-year-old Francis Codling told the BBC of her four children, eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. "That's one of the main reasons why I wanted to vote for the Greens," she said. "I'm worried about their future and I'm worried about the climate. I want there to be a world here for them to enjoy."

Almost one in five XR protesters arrested for taking action were retired. When pressed on why they opposed local housing developments, rural residents frequently cite the lack of provision in development plans for young families. As openDemocracy reported last year, Green Party campaigners are often told by local residents that "the world is going to hell" and that they will be voting for them in the hopes they can do something about it.

Fears for the young are a cypher for the future. Not for fears that it won't exist, but that there is one worth fighting for. Contrary to the idea of climate change cancelling the future, the future here is the young. This movement seeks to protect the future by conserving the present.

What is missing from the 2024 British election is any sense of the future as anything other than more of the same. While conservation is typically seen as backwards-looking, holding onto that which has yet to be destroyed, this new conservation movement is perhaps better thought of as one of the few movements still looking to the future, still organising around the idea that there should be a tomorrow worth living in.

And that tomorrow should have decent jobs and affordable housing, education and health services but those things are only worthwhile if there are also rivers that can be swum in, fields to walk in, clean air to breathe, and woods in which to listen to birdsong.

From openDemocracy

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