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By attempting to be populist but appearing merely outdated, the Lib Dems have produced an energy policy that is by far the least realistic of the plans by the three major parties.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.

Follow the NS team on Facebook

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!

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

0800 7318496