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Just Stop Oil: How far is too far?

(Alamy)

7 min read

Direct action groups like Just Stop Oil are increasingly targeting MPs and their homes. Harriet Symonds asks how far is too far?

The climate action group Just Stop Oil has pledged to increase action against MPs in the run up to the general election this year – including funding candidates signing up to its aims.

In November, Just Stop Oil protesters gathered outside Rishi Sunak’s London home beating pots and pans. Last December, activists from the group staged a protest outside Keir Starmer’s house. And in March Just Stop Oil protesters targeted Wes Streeting’s home – although it was later confirmed they had the wrong address. 

I’m afraid we have to keep going. Sadly, we have to keep disrupting

These stunts led to ministers agreeing a new protocol with the police that some MPs hope will see protesters stopped from targeting MPs’ homes but the group itself has told The House it has no intention of backing off.

“Of course we will. It’s their job to be pressurised,” Just Stop Oil spokesperson Dr Bing Jones says when asked if the group will carry on its campaign.

“I don’t want to disturb MPs. So far Just Stop Oil have sung some songs outside MPs’ houses… I’m afraid we have to keep going. Sadly, we have to keep disrupting.”

But both Labour and Conservative front benches are united in warning the group to keep away from MPs’ homes.

“The homes of politicians must be out of bounds,” says Dan Jarvis, Labour MP for Barnsley Central and shadow security minister. “We have freedom of speech, rightly, but that doesn’t extend to behaving in an aggressive way that seeks to intimidate others.”

The stunts Just Stop Oil protesters are best known for include zip-tying themselves to goalposts during Premier League football games, throwing tomato soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery, and glueing themselves to busy roads in central London. But as it looks for new ways to make its voice heard, the group is choosing increasingly incendiary action. 

“I’m absolutely certain that nobody within Just Stop Oil would wish any harm on anybody. Unless it was to…” says Dr Jones, stopping short before correcting himself: “We would not wish to harm on anybody.” 

The aftermath of October 7 and war in Gaza has added urgency to a debate about MPs’ security, however. 

In February Tobias Ellwood was targeted at his home by pro-Palestine protesters who accused him of being “complicit in genocide”. Ellwood’s children were there at the time. He tells The House: “Certainly the latitude in which demonstrations are allowed to take place in a very free and open society [is] being ever tested by a variety of groups, which we saw outside my home.”

He adds: “It’s discouraging, particularly in the world of MPs, because we simply don’t know what to expect any more. The distinction between public and private life is increasingly blurred.”

Security minister Tom Tugendhat tells The House: “Freedom of speech is fundamental to who we are as a nation. We will not tolerate any attempts to silence our elected representatives, or to shut down debate through intimidation or threats.”

In the last nine years, two MPs have been murdered. Politicians, particularly female MPs, are now routinely the target of rape and death threats. Some MPs have revealed they now wear stab vests to meet constituents, carry panic alarms, and are accompanied by close protection officers.  

Two months ago, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak warned that Britain is descending into “mob rule” and urged the police to take action. It is in the context of this febrile political culture that Just Stop Oil’s shock-tactics are being treated with extreme caution.

“Just because someone is a public figure does not make their private home and their family fair game, which is what is happening,” says John Woodcock, the government’s independent adviser on political violence and disruption.

“You can’t just go around and demand MPs do stuff, break into and occupy their homes on the basis that you’re doing it for the planet,” says Mark Garnier, Conservative MP for Wyre Forest and member of the Energy Security and Net Zero Committee.

Conservative peer Lord Frost agrees: “If you want to make your views known to an MP, you can write them a letter, you can go on Twitter, you don’t need to stand outside their house and shout at them.” 

But striking a balance between the right to protest and public safety is no easy task. New police powers introduced in the last few years cracking down on protests have been criticised for being too heavy handed. Clive Lewis, the Labour MP for Norwich South, who has previously taken part in a Just Stop Oil rally, warns that these measures have actually ended up stoking more division. 

“It seems to me that we’ve forgotten what tolerance is about, what living in a democracy is about. The democratic freedom to be able to cause inconvenience is far better than the alternatives, and it feels to me that we’re shutting down in so many spheres of life –  and that leads to more extremism,” he explains. 

The Labour Party has promised to stop new North Sea oil and gas projects – a clear dividing line with the Tories – but the climate action group is still set to target Labour MPs and candidates going into the general election. “It almost feels like no matter what you’ve told them about what you’re trying to do, they will not accept that the ambition is there,” says one Labour front bencher. 

“These groups have never asked to meet me,” the MP adds. “There’s a narrative that no one’s listening, but I’m not sure they’ve really tried.”

But Just Stop Oil argues MPs are not doing enough and must commit to end all fossil fuels by 2030. “Parliamentarians are not paying attention. They’re just dealing with most immediate selfish concerns they have about being elected,” says Jones. 

He reveals the group plans to fund independent candidates standing in the election who back its climate cause: “We will be looking to support and fund any independent MP coming into the next election who supports our basic asks.” 

For many, the scale of the climate crisis is impossible to ignore, but Just Stop Oil’s suffragette-style tactics and unwillingness to compromise have arguably done more harm than good for their cause. 

“Their cause is completely undermined by the way that they’re going about it and all they will do is alienate the public,” says Jarvis. 

The shadow security minister says that further action will need to be taken to prevent protesters from continuing to target MPs. 

“I think we will need to look at whether further safeguards should be put in place,” he says. 
The police have been criticised for being too hands-off with protesters and letting intimidatory behavior slide. “What’s happened is that the police have got overly risk averse and they are letting things go, rather than enforcing the law,” explains Lord Frost. 

In February, the government and police signed up to a “defending democracy policing protocol” to treat protests at MPs homes as “intimidatory”. In practice, this should empower the police to enforce Section 42 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act to direct protesters away. 

Will things get better? “Only time will tell. But the message to the police to act is now clear,” says Ellwood. 

We’re at a tipping point. Rather than both sides ratcheting up their response, maybe what’s needed is a reset of our political culture. Lewis adds: “We can’t just keep blaming this group over here or this group over there. We’ve actually got to take some ownership and say, ‘how do we make this better?’ And that means building consensus.” 

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