The Lib Dems can keep the lights on

Simon Hughes responds to Mark Lynas and defends his call for an independent inquiry into nuclear pow

Delusion is not a necessary consequence of becoming a Conservative supporter. Yet in Mark Lynas's case this seems to have been one of the results. Lynas's attack piece on Liberal Democrat energy policy was one of the most delusional pieces of writing I have read in a long time, and utterly lacking in foundation.

Lynas accuses me of ignoring the "science" and laments my comments on BBC Radio 4 on the health effects of nuclear power. According to him, there is no plausible scientific case for this.

I presume he refers to my call for an independent inquiry into the "justification" for nuclear power. "Justification" is the process of assessment of the health effects of nuclear power and is a legal requirement before any new nuclear plant can operate in the UK. One of the means by which it can be carried out is through a public inquiry.

The purpose of my call was precisely so that scientific evidence could be examined in the open, and that nuclear scientists, other experts and the public can participate in the decision-making process for new nuclear power in a meaningful way. This call was supported by roughly 80 leading research academics and nuclear scientists in the UK.

If Lynas is so convinced that the health detriments of nuclear are simply an urban myth as he claims, he too should have no problem with a public inquiry. He may however also know that the nuclear power lobby is worried that since the publication of the KiKK study by the German government in 2008 "justification" may not survive more detailed scrutiny.

The KiKK study found that there was a doubling of the incidence of childhood leukaemia within five kilometres of every single German nuclear power station. The study is considered to be one of the best and most complete scientific examinations carried out into the effects of nuclear reactors on public health. It clearly passes the plausibility test.

Perplexing preference

The Lynas article also makes the alarmist and unfounded claim that if Liberal Democrats are in government and nuclear power is dropped, the lights will go out. This is not just a difference of opinion; it is objectively untrue. With the best will in the world there will not be a new nuclear power station built in this country within seven years.

The power stations coming offline over the next decade meant that we need new power generation to come online to replace them before that. With the huge capital costs of nuclear (current estimates are that each reactor will cost not less than £5bn), and the investment this would take away from other sources, nuclear power could actually hinder our chances of bringing the necessary new sources of energy online.

Lynas commends Conservative energy policy and criticises Labour for dragging its feet. I find this perplexing. Lynas has been involved in and written about energy issues for many years now. He therefore must know that in 2006 David Cameron was criticising Labour's commitment to nuclear power as irresponsible. He must also know that as recently as six months ago Zac Goldsmith was saying that no new nuclear power stations would be built under a Tory administration.

If the industry is looking for political stability, it would do a lot better than to look to the Conservative Party.

Need for action

I could go on. I could talk about Lynas's use of the somewhat distasteful phrase "closer to normal mortality rates" to describe the many cancer victims recorded in the vicinity of Chernobyl, or the huge economic and safety concerns surrounding nuclear waste, or the fact that nuclear power is the least cost-effective way of reducing carbon emissions.

But the real problem with his article is that polemics of this kind are exactly what has eroded public confidence in the need to combat climate change. I and others who are fully convinced of the necessity of action on climate change need to get out and about more, engage with the public and make the case.

We need to demonstrate that the decisions that we make are based on the strongest possible evidence and foundations of scientific inquiry. We are not helped by people like Lynas, who claim to be the guardians of "science" while making personal attacks on anyone who dares to disagree. In the end, the only people they discredit are themselves.

Simon Hughes is the MP for North Southwark and Bermondsey. He is the Liberal Democrat shadow secretary of state for energy and climate change

UPDATE: Read Mark Lynas's response to Simon Hughes's article here.

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Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

The electoral pool they are fishing in is shallow – perhaps even non-existent. 

The press and Labour’s political opponents are hammering Jeremy Corbyn over his party's pledge/ambition/cruel lie to win an election (delete depending on your preference) to not only abolish tuition fees for new students, but to write off the existing debts of those who have already graduated.

Labour has conceded (or restated, again, depending on your preference) that this is merely an “ambition” – that the party had not pledged to wipe out existing tuition fee debt but merely to scrap fees.

The party’s manifesto and the accompanying costings document only included a commitment to scrap the fees of students already in the system. What the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are claiming as a pledge is the following remark, made by Jeremy Corbyn in his Q&A with NME readers:

“First of all, we want to get rid of student fees altogether. We’ll do it as soon as we get in, and we’ll then introduce legislation to ensure that any student going from the 2017-18 academic year will not pay fees. They will pay them, but we’ll rebate them when we’ve got the legislation through – that’s fundamentally the principle behind it. Yes, there is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden. I don’t have the simple answer for it at this stage – I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly; we had two weeks to prepare all of this – but I’m very well aware of that problem. And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”

Is this a promise, an aspiration or a target? The answer probably depends on how you feel about Jeremy Corbyn or fees policy in general. (My reading, for what it’s worth, is that the full quote looks much more like an objective than a promise to my eyes but that the alternative explanation is fair enough, too.)

The more interesting question is whether or not there is an electoral prize to be had, whether from the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats, for hammering Labour on this topic. On that one the answer is open and shut: there really isn’t one.

Why not? Because the evidence is clear: that pledging to abolish tuition fees largely moves two groups of voters: students who have yet to graduate and actually start paying back the fees, and their parents and grandparents, who are worried about the debt burden.

There is not a large caucus of fee-paying graduates – that is, people who have graduated and are earning enough to start paying back their tuition fees – who are opposed to the system. (We don’t have enough evidence but my expectation is that the parents of people who have already graduated are also less fussed. They can see that their children are not crippled by tuition fee debt, which forms a negligible part of a graduate’s tax and living expenses, as opposed to parents who are expecting a worrying future for their children who have yet to graduate.)

Put simply, there isn’t a large group of people aged 21 or above voting for Corbyn who are that concerned about a debt write-off. Of those that are, they tend to have an ideological stance on the value of a higher education system paid for out of general taxation – a stance that makes it much harder for the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats to peel those votes off.

The whole thing is a bit of a blind alley for the parties of the centre and right. The Tory difficulty at this election wasn’t that they did badly among 18-21s, though they did do exceptionally badly. With the exception of the wave year of 1983, they have always tended to do badly with this group. Their problem is that they are doing badly with 30-45s, usually the time in life that some younger Labour voters begin to vote Conservative, largely but not exclusively because they have tended to get on the property ladder.

Nowadays of course, that cohort, particularly in the south of England, is not getting on the property ladder and as a result is not turning blue as it ages. And that’s both a bigger worry and a more lucrative electoral target for Labour’s opponents than litigating an NME interview.

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