"Gut feelings" are just as valid as political rhetoric in the new Rational Parliament. And why not?

In ancient Athens, each citizen had to take a turn offering his governance. The Rational Parliament attempts to bring that spirit back, because certain issues are too important to leave to the professionals.

Last month, thousands of farmers descended on the centre of New Delhi to show their support for the use of biotechnology in agriculture. A few days earlier, thousands of other citizens had gathered in the same place. Their goal was to persuade the Indian government to do the opposite: not to allow field trials of genetically modified crops.
 
Had these two gatherings taken place on the same day, violence would almost certainly have ensued. The issue of genetic modification is a flashpoint for extremism, with ideology and egos elbowing facts out of the debate.
 
India has a fast-growing population, and the Indian parliament is considering if biotechnology should play a part in the food production industry. Thanks to public interest litigation on the matter, so is India’s Supreme Court. Here’s a question: why aren’t you?
 
Most of us feel unqualified to approach these issues. But our use of biotechnology matters wherever we are, and there is no reason to think you are less qualified than the politicians who get to make the call. In ancient Athens, each ordinary citizen had to take his turn offering governance, making thought-out decisions on the questions of the day, based on his best understanding. What makes you so special?
 
It’s hard to find a good way to engage with complex problems. Marches and rallies inevitably polarise opinion. Debates between panels of experts often leave an audience feeling powerless and paralysed by partisan rhetoric. Wouldn’t it be good if you, like the Athenians, could discuss both sides for yourself, quietly and without fear of provoking violence? And then listen, politely, to other people’s views before casting a vote on whether we should proceed with something?
 
That’s the idea behind the Rational Parliament, which will debate genetic modification at its inaugural meeting in Conway Hall, central London, on 10 September. It is open to anyone and everyone who wants to take part (though numbers are limited). There will be short presentations from scientists who have published on the subject, but anyone who turns up will be considered a Member of the Rational Parliament (MRP) and can ask questions or table motions. Towards the end of the evening, MRPs will use a ballot box to cast a vote for or against the motion.
 
It’s just possible the outcome will have some influence in the UK’s other parliament. As the Speaker of that house, John Bercow, recently pointed out in a controversial speech on reform, history shows societies can lead as well as follow parliaments. The Rational Parliament’s aim is dignified democratic engagement with the scientific topics of the day – difficult to achieve in the older house.
 
At the Rational Parliament, submission of robust evidence will be encouraged but “gut feelings” are valid submissions, too, and if they are widely shared they will be influential. Not everything that matters can be put into peer-reviewed journals (though they’re a good place to start).
 
In fact, when it comes to GM and many other current issues, we have a lot of facts at our disposal. Should we choose to sit down and look at them without prejudice, it may well be that there is an obvious answer. But it is also possible there is no right answer yet, just a right way forward. Either way, it’s far too important to leave to the professionals.
 
Michael Brooks will be speaker of the house at the inaugural debate of the Rational Parliament. Details: rationalparliamentgm.eventbrite.co.uk 
Indian farmers demonstrate during a protest against the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill in New Delhi. Image: Getty

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.