Why no party can afford to be anti-nuclear

The Lib Dems must abandon their anti-nuclear stance and develop a realistic energy policy.

Of all the dangers of a hung parliament, the lights going out is not thought to be one of them. Yet this could be the perverse result, if the Liberal Democrats end up holding the balance of power and insist on halting the UK's nuclear new-build programme as their condition for joining any cross-party coalition. Already, the heads of companies such as RWE npower are reconsidering nuclear investments and holding back until the political landscape becomes clearer.

This is a mistake the Lib Dems do not need to make. They could learn the lesson of the German Greens, who made closing the country's nukes a condition for joining the Social Democrat-led coalition in 1998 -- a policy that has resulted in proposals for dozens of new coal-fired plants in an effort to address Germany's looming energy gap.

By attempting to be populist but appearing merely outdated, the Lib Dems have produced an energy policy that is by far the least realistic of the plans by the three major parties. On 19 March, the Conservatives launched a sensible plan for a carbon tax on electricity generation to encourage investment in both nuclear and renewable power. After years of dithering, Labour is now on track with its large-scale offshore wind programme, nuclear new-build and major grid upscaling.

The Lib Dems are left with wishful thinking. The writer David MacKay summarised their approach in his book Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air as "Plan L", which would leave a zero-carbon Britain dependent on imports for two-thirds of its electricity, and on coal for much of the rest. (This is "clean coal" -- a technology yet to be invented on the required scale.)

I was puzzled to hear the Lib Dem energy spokesman, Simon Hughes, lamenting, on Radio 4's The World Tonight, the "health effects" of nuclear power as a reason for his opposition to it, even though no plausible scientific case can be made. Coal, on the other hand, kills thousands every year -- in the United States, 23,600 people suffer a premature death due to coal's dirty emissions. That's 35 per plant per year, meaning that, in all probability, my local coal plant at Didcot has already killed more people than Chernobyl.

Hughes would do well to consult Wade Allison's new book, Radiation and Reason. Allison, professor of physics at Oxford University, begins by reminding us that out of all the radiation we each receive annually, half comes from naturally occurring radon, 9.5 per cent from "the decay of radioactive atoms that occur naturally within the human body", 15 per cent from medical procedures and less than 0.5 per cent from other man-made sources. Less than 0.1 per cent comes from the discharges from civil nuclear power. Hughes's arguments about putative health effects are just recycled urban myths.

Allison's book looks at evidence from Chernobyl and Hiroshima which demonstrates that very low doses of radiation are unlikely to have negative health effects, and may even be beneficial. (Of those who took a big hit in Chernobyl, roughly 50 died from radiation poisoning; others with lower doses have closer-to-normal mortality rates.) Further evidence comes from radiotherapy, which exposes people to radiation to defeat cancer -- without causing new tumours in consequence.

In other areas, the Lib Dems take science seriously. My local MP, Evan Harris, has recently distinguished himself in the campaign to show that homoeopathy is bogus. I hope he can persuade Hughes and the wider party to base their energy policy on science, rather than conjecture.

This article appears in this week's edition of the New Statesman.

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Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Hold on tight!

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.