Could the Stig go Green?

Signing up Johnny Ball to talk on nuclear power is like the fur industry getting Beatrix Potter on-s

It wasn’t quite ‘within days’ of my last blog, but we have now received the government’s official confirmation that they are planning for a new wave of nuclear power stations to be built across the UK.

The announcement was made by John Hutton on Thursday, but not before we heard from the government’s own Nuclear Consultation Working Group that the second public consultation process had failed hopelessly to make up for the deficiencies of the first. This was drily underlined by Jonathan Dimbleby who called a straw poll on Friday’s Any Questions and couldn’t find a single person in the audience who felt they had been involved in a meaningful debate on the issue.

I won’t go into all the many arguments against this decision here, since Green MEP Caroline Lucas has done such a sterling job elsewhere on this very website. Enough to say that, given the likelihood of another legal challenge to the decision-making process, I’m not too downhearted but that it has made for an eventful week.

As soon as the announcement was made, public debate did at last spring up in all media outlets, so every Green and LibDem spokesperson (and a couple of Tory and Labour dissidents) were called out to argue against the madness.

I wrote a joint letter with two of my fellow candidates for London Mayor, Ken Livingstone and Brian Paddick, which was published in the Evening Standard. In what the Guardian called ‘a rare show of near-unanimity’, we condemned the decision and said: “We believe that we can meet our city’s energy needs through becoming much more efficient with our energy use, local energy generation and exploiting our renewable resources.”

Indeed we can and, with trains carrying highly dangerous nuclear fuel already passing through central London, we will also have to bear a large share of the risks of this policy. Boris Johnson refused to sign the letter, showing a worrying rejection of the interests of Londoners in favour of party discipline.

The debate I enjoyed most this week was rather unexpected. I really wasn’t looking forward going on Talksport radio on Thursday night, especially when I found hummer-driving James Whale would be in the chair and that I’d be arguing against Johnny Ball.

I have been almost in mourning since I first saw him acting as a roving spokesperson for the nuclear industry a year or so ago. Mr Ball and his seminal 1980s science programmes were directly responsible for my chemistry set and therefore indirectly responsible for my choice to study science at university – something I’ll be eternally glad I did. But, to my surprise, our exchange ended up very good natured, fact-filled and even interesting, and that’s despite an outbreak of nonsensical climate denial breaking out towards the end.

It is, I have to admit, a stroke of PR genius for the nuclear industry to have signed up Johnny Ball. If anyone’s image says ‘friendly, trusted scientist’ to my generation (who are statistically most opposed to nuclear power) then it’s him. And he must be having an impact; it’s like the Fur Council signing up Beatrix Potter as an advocate or, indeed, like an investment bank taking on a Labour Prime Minister. It’s about time the forces of good stole this tactic and gathered a few unlikely allies of our own. Perhaps the Stig should expect a call?

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.