Will a new generation of nuclear power stations get a green light to help combat global warming? Recent press coverage and comment suggests that the nuclear lobby regard climate change as a convincing argument. Electricity generated by nuclear power is carbon emission free runs the argument and the conclusion is that Britain will only achieve its climate change targets with a revival of nuclear power. This is misguided.
1. The scale of change required in the world economy in the next few decades following the passing of Peak Oil within the next few years is nothing less than apocalyptic. Since our whole civilisation and our whole economy is based overwhelmingly on oil, namely – industry, agriculture, transportation – the dislocation caused by the growing shortfall in availability is likely to be on a scale unprecedented in human history. Already, four fifths of the world’s oil supply comes from fields discovered before 1970, and even finding a field as large as Ghawar in Saudi Arabia – which is anyway almost inconceivable given the huge improvements in geological knowledge in the last 30 years – it would only meet world demand for another 10 years.
2. So what is to be done?
Tony Blair says he has listened and learned from the chastening election experience. If he really means that, though yesterday’s Queen’s speech makes it look doubtful, he will realise that Labour voters, who deserted in millions, want a very different policy direction for the third term.
From The Times, 12 May 2005
“We need power to the people, not to the autocratic new Labour clique”
by Michael Meacher MP
Strong loyalist support for the Prime Minister at yesterday’s meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party cannot disguise the need to confront the reasons why Labour, in an historic third-term victory, nevertheless lost well over half its majority and dropped four million votes compared with 1997.
People also made clear that they didn’t like the quasi-Presidential style that has been adopted, where consultation and accountability have drained away. Essentially there are two kinds of democratic system. One is a regime which gives executive powers to an elected President, as in the USA, but where those powers are constrained by a range of Congressional checks and balances. The other – our system – envisages a Prime Minister using his party majority in Parliament to push through his programme, but having to manoeuvre between the factions both within Cabinet and in a wider, vigorous parliamentary process. In Britain however the constraints have now all broken down.
We now have a Prime Minister closeted with a small group of unelected aides monopolising many key decisions and riding roughshod over Parliament, with a mixture of patronage and threats to silence any opposition. Indeed, the single underlying thread linking the various flashpoints of the last Parliament – on foundation hospitals, tuition fees, GM crops, the anti-terrorism legislation, and most notably the Iraq War – is this exercise of autocratic power, without listening to Cabinet, the Party or the electorate. Tackling this is the single biggest task for the new Parliament.
But it isn’t only the Iraq imbroglio and the haemorrhaging of trust in the Prime Minister which were so manifest in the election. This was by some margin the most lacklustre and negative election in recent times, and that is because there is no idealism or burning sense of ideological direction to inspire and drive forward events. With a majority of over 160 during the last eight years, New Labour had the best opportunity for perhaps two centuries to imprint its vision on British society. The plummeting in electoral turnout by 15% in less than a decade exposes just how far this opportunity to build up momentum has been lost. For all the technocratic edge that has been brought to bear in administration, too many people now see New Labour as too closely associated with conservative politics, leaving large swathes of the electorate virtually unrepresented.
The problem therefore goes a lot deeper than simply seeking to arrange for a seamless transition to Gordon Brown (if that indeed is what happens), and recently he has been making some encouraging comments about the need to entrench a social democratic consensus. The real issue is much more about policy and ideology than about personalities. We need a major change in direction, starting now if the core Labour vote is to be attracted back in time for the next election which otherwise the Party could well lose. None of this is to suggest at all a return to the battles of the 1970-80s, but simply to make the obvious point that there are other and better alternatives for a modernised Labour Party to move forward than the New Labour formula.
The problem for all political parties of the Left is how to reconcile social justice with an unfettered capitalist economy. New Labour simply used spin to claim that they are compatible. Evidence suggests they are not. Inequality has sharply increased, even while child poverty has seen some reduction. Means-testing has now proliferated so extensively in social policy that the poverty trap has become a serious problem and more and more pensioners now find they are penalised having saved for their retirement. The halving of Stock Exchange values in the 2000-2 bear market has decimated pension levels for millions who were persuaded to rely on private pensions.
A major rebalancing of pension provision towards the public sector is now needed if pensioners in future are to be protected against the disaster of recent years and guaranteed their proper share in rising national prosperity. In the short term there are many alternative ways of restoring fairness in our society – for example, we could fund the guarantee credit level of pension (£107 per week) as-of-right for all pensioners, thus also restoring the incentive to save for retirement, if just the richest 1% paid a slightly higher tax on their earnings. This is the kind of minimum social justice that cries out to be implemented in today’s Britain polarised between the very poor and the very rich.
Nor is the privatising, deregulating, contracting-out agenda – probably the centrepiece of Tony Blair’s programme for this new Parliament – compatible with the goal of social justice or even with the aim of economic efficiency. PFI schemes, which now dangerously pre-empt future public expenditure commitments in servicing contracts, have too often proved poor value for money. The contracting-out of school meals and hospital cleaning has worsened standards. The fragmentation of the railways and divided responsibilities over rail maintenance have been a factor in several major accidents. Foundation hospitals and specialist academies cream the best services for some people, but at the expense of draining off health and educational resources from most others. It is still not understood by the privatisers that boosting the morale of public service providers and enhancing their vocational dedication and caring professionalism is a far better channel to raise standards than imposing market disciplines.
Another key change of direction needed concerns the handling of power. We display undue subservience to the US when the bottom line of our foreign policy should be protecting British interests and UN legitimacy, not led by deference to US interests (not least about going to war). We respond to the threat of terrorism by withdrawing rights to a fair trial from suspects, thus undermining the free society we purport to defend. We continue to tilt the balance of industrial power firmly towards big business, thus eroding the protection of workers in the weakest position, in the first year of employment, in the smallest firms and in part-time work. Yet the proper exercise of power is to stand up to the strong where their demands are unacceptable, and to support the weak when they cannot protect themselves.
As Gordon Brown has himself observed, the Labour Party was founded on moral principle and social justice. These are changes of policy direction he should now urgently consider.