At first glance, the Green Party campaign in Yorkshire and the Humber for the upcoming MEP elections appears to be breaking all the rules of political campaigning.
Yes, it is focused on the lead Green candidate, the high-profile former Lord Mayor of Sheffield, Magid Magid. Yes, Magid was on national television last week and the campaign does try to fit in a traditional political meeting every evening in this madcap two-week long electoral endurance race. And a film crew from The Guardian is also trailing along to film his every move, including up-close footage of his grimacing face when he got a painful kink in his upper back on Monday morning and urgently needed an unconventional massage while lying flat out on a living room floor in Hull. (You can imagine what will be a strong candidate for an opening clip of their video.)
But consider the first three events that featured in the ‘Tour de Magid’ that I joined for Green World on Monday (20 May) in East Yorkshire, three days before Thursday’s European elections.
The Tour started at 10:00am at a remote and almost unknown oil and gas drilling site at West Newton in the East Riding of Yorkshire. It is an area that could hardly be more Tory Blue; ecology central it isn’t. And although everybody knows that Rathlin Energy, the drill owners, probably intend to turn West Newton into a shale gas/fracking site – indeed it may even be an acid fracking site – it is officially still considered just another oil and gas drilling site and the local residents remain mostly unaware of the potential dangers ahead. Their last major campaign here was, ironically, against the expansion of a wind farm visible nearby. (See below for more on West Newton.)
Then the tour moved on to a still-under-construction urban ‘farm in a box’ called Rooted in Hull before hooking up with about five refugees for a ‘meet and greet’ session on a pavement beside a quiet residential street over the lunch hour.
Next up was an event at the University of Hull, where Magid was the Students’ Union president in 2012. The occasion was an inaugural meeting of the University of Hull Green Students Association that unfortunately had to be scheduled at the last minute right in the midst of exam time.
‘Attracting attention to causes he believes in’
In short, none of it was ‘hold the front page' kind of stuff that would compete with the latest complaint from Nigel Farage about an “absolutely disgusting smear” against his name.
That is precisely the point of the Greens’ campaign here, explains Louise Houghton, tour manager and another Green MEP candidate for Yorkshire and the Humber. It is “politics done differently”, and it seems to be working.
“Magid has been peacocking, he’s been spreading his wings and attracting attention not to himself but to causes that he believes in,” she says. And it was the local Green Party in Hull – not a political geek back in London HQ – that selected events, themes and causes it wanted to support in Hull.
There is no question Magid Magid is hardly a typical EU election candidate... But it would be a huge mistake to think that he is someone not to be taken seriously.
That the Tour de Magid even stopped off for a day in the East Riding of Yorkshire is a bit unusual. This area saw 60.4 per cent of its electorate vote to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum and no other Remain party appears to be campaigning much here at all. Both the Tories and Labour (the first a power in the countryside, the second in the city) also seem to be giving this election the silent treatment in the local area.
Magid concurred about the choice of events for Monday’s Tour: “We went to West Newton to show solidarity”. He talked with campaigners for over an hour and greatly boosted their spirits. When I returned home to Sheffield, I found out that one of them had posted our photo together on my personal Facebook page and written: “I love Magic Magid! Great guy.”
Magid is a black Muslim refugee from Somalia – he and his family escaped to the UK and Sheffield in 1994 when he was aged five – and he listened carefully and sympathetically to the life histories of the refugees from Sudan and Afghanistan he met on Monday noon on the pavement. (None can vote here.)
“If I am fortunate enough to get elected to the European Parliament on Thursday, I want to make sure that I take stories like theirs with me,” he said. He also stressed that while there are lots of “horror stories” about being a refugee, there are many reasons to be hopeful. “Hope beats hate,” he tells them quietly.
To the small audience of University of Hull students, Magid gave the straight goods – nothing flowery – about his priorities if he becomes an MEP: remaining in the EU and holding a People’s Vote, campaigning around the climate emergency, and fighting the far right and racism. “The Greens are the only anti-austerity, pro-Remain party running in the European Parliamentary elections,” he reminded them.
Magid also said he would work hard to secure more EU funding for this region, where there are some seriously cash-strapped areas that Westminster has forgotten about. Afterwards, a student told Green World: “He seems a pretty genuine bloke.”
Not your typical candidate
There is no question Magid Magid is hardly a typical EU election candidate. He may well be the first African refugee to be a British MEP if the Green slate succeeds. And he would be the first Green Party MEP from this region. Some recent polls are looking positive.
Few candidates do campaign wearing a yellow baseball cap backwards (“I chose yellow because it matched the gold chain of the Lord Mayor of Sheffield”) or wearing a T-shirt that says, depending on the day, “IMMIGRANTS MAKE BRITAIN GREAT” or “DONALD TRUMP IS A WASTEMAN.” While Lord Mayor of Sheffield for the past 12 months, Magid announced – and much to the consternation of the Labour Party traditionalists controlling Sheffield City Council – that he was banning the US President from the city.
Magic Magid, as some call him, is an outgoing, young and warm-hearted politician on the environmental left. He likes to have a laugh. But it would be a huge mistake to think that Magid is some kind of flake or someone not to be taken seriously. The other day for example, Labour Party MP Paul Blomfield from Sheffield Central reportedly told a woman not to vote for Magid because “he was just a showman.”
Magid may well be the first African refugee to be a British MEP if the Green slate succeeds. And he would be the first Green Party MEP from this region.
Blomfield is not the first Labour politician in Sheffield to say that about Magid. When Blomfield’s patronising comments were first reported at Magid’s Lord Mayor “leaving bash” ten days ago, Magid gave a perfectly coherent impromptu five-minute talk explaining why he was running as an MEP.
In fact, voters are today still rather most concerned about the policies that politicians stand for and their record. In the case of Blomfield, for example, he supported fracking until at least as late as 2014 a letter sent to a constituent reveals. Throughout the lengthy Sheffield tree crisis, which resulted in the needless felling of thousands of healthy street trees, Blomfield acted as an apologist for the local Labour Council. As the ranking Labour politician in the area, his intervention could have saved hundreds of trees. And on the question of Brexit, Blomfield has been Shadow (Cabinet) Minister for Exiting the European Union since October 2016 and thus one of the messengers for Labour's ‘on-the-one-hand, on-the-other’ policy on Brexit in this atypical MEP vote.
Even Labour Party commentators are saying that “Labour wants to be the anti-establishment party – but can’t agree on what that means for Brexit.” For example, the knowledgeable Sienna Rodgers, a firm Corbynista, wrote on Monday in Labour List: “Over half of the voters say their top priority in Thursday's election is Brexit. People like to sneer in response, pointing out that MEPs cannot implement Brexit or legislate for another referendum, but I reckon most voters know that the effect of their vote won’t be direct – for the majority, this is about sending a message to Westminster. Neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn want to talk about Brexit, however, making every election until the matter is settled (even if temporarily) a nightmare."
Magid is very clear on where he stands on Brexit. When one of the University of Hull students asked him on Monday what his priority would be on his first day in office if he was elected, Magid promptly replied: “Working to stay in the EU and make changes.”
West Newton drill site
You sense the frustration that is gripping the campaigners against the West Newton oil and gas site in East Yorkshire just as soon as you talk with them.
They are campaigning against an oil and gas drilling site in an era which is waking up to the fact that we have a climate emergency right in front of us. And that, by itself, should be enough to halt what they call, not surprisingly, the West Newton "shitshow."
But the drilling at West Newton is not classified as fracking and it may not ever become a site of fracking or become one for many months in the future.
Yet consider just a few facts about the West Newton site that are well summarised in this report called ‘What’s the fuss about West Newton?’ and from what I discovered during my own brief visit there this week as part of the ‘Tour de Magid.’
- A very detailed 2014 investigation by the leading fossil fuel journalist, Ruth Hayhurst of Drill n’Drop showed that the West Newtown site and its operator, Rathlin Energy, “breached environmental permit conditions in three months" back in the summer of 2014. In total, says another report, there were at this same time “19 environment permit breaches, leaking tankers, an uncertified drilling rig, toxic gas leaks that were recorded for weeks and many recorded deaths of local wildlife and birds”. Three strikes and you're out clearly doesn't apply to fossil fuel companies.
- In the South of England there has recently been great concern in the Sussex and Gatwick areas about seismic activity resulting from a similar type of drilling that Rathlin Energy is undertaking at West Newton. Five years ago, a fish farmer near West Newton lost his entire business when seismic activity from the drill here drained his pond completely and he lost all of this fish.
- Because what is happening at West Newton is not technically considered as fracking by the Conservative Government (but would be in many other parts of the world), the West Newton site is not regulated by the stricter regulations that cover fracking across England. Elsewhere in England, earthquake tremors resulting from fracking are regularly large enough to shut down the fracking site from which they are emitted. Such sites operate under the so-called ‘traffic light system’. No traffic lights operate in West Newton. Nor, you sometimes feel, does the Richter scale.
- A recent update says the current plan at West Newton ‘is to drill to a depth of around 2,000 metres and then use thousands of leaders of hydrochloric acid and other chemicals to ‘stimulate’ the limestone and thus release oil and gas’. A short video produced by a scientist in Florida graphically demonstrates why we should all be very worried about acid fracking.
- Since early April 2019, there has been a massive push forward on this remote site and up to 50 police officers from the Humberside police force have been there to serve and protect Rathlin and to curb legitimate protest against this environmental nightmare situated in lovely green fields that are now flowering yellow rapeseed. The word “surreal” does not do the scene justice.
- Meanwhile, anti-fracking protesters elsewhere partially won a legal challenge against the shale gas company, Ineos Upstream, in early April. One part of that judgment says that the prohibition against ‘slow walking’ in an injunction granted to Ineos should be struck down because, in the words of three law lords, “…how slow is slow? Any slower than normal walking speed of 2mph? One does not know." When I questioned the sergeant on duty from the Humberside police force on Monday morning about the applicability of this court judgement here in West Newton, he was blunt: “We do not allow slow walking here. We know it when we see it.”
- The onsite monitors – and not from the government it should be added – have recorded that up to four huge tankers a day (with a capacity of 35,000 litres each) have been delivering water to the drilling site in recent weeks. “We stopped counting when the total hit 500,000 litres”, a campaigner told me Monday. If we are hit again by another hot summer this year like we had in 2018, the headlines are sure to say “water shortages feared”, but we can be sure Rathlin won’t be mentioned.
There is lots more that could be written about West Newton; it is now on Green World’s radar for coming months. Perhaps the best way to keep up with development yourself is to join their Facebook group ‘West Newton Gateway to the Gas Fields’. The campaigners here are a friendly and determined crew.