Published on Left Foot Forward on Thursday 2 February 2017. This is the unabridged version!
On Friday 13 January, the Green Party announced that it would be standing a candidate in the Copeland by-election. A decision had been reached by the local party in Copeland at its AGM the evening before. Within minutes of the announcement, onlookers on social media questioned why there was apparently no progressive alliance for the seat.
This built to a crescendo when Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green Party, spoke about the benefits of a progressive alliance at the Fabian Society New Year conference in London on 14 January. Labour activists immediately took to Twitter to ask why the Greens were standing in Copeland. Wasn’t it hypocritical of Jonathan to be promoting the concept of an electoral pact while his party was standing against them? In my opinion, absolutely not.
There are many things that a progressive alliance might be, but for those still unclear, it is not simply the Greens standing down. You might think this is obvious, but apparently it’s something that some Labour activists struggle with. And this arrogance from Labour is a toxic blocker to any notion of an alliance.
But let’s examine the facts a bit closer. First up, no-one from Copeland Labour reached out to the Greens to ask us not to stand, or to back their candidacy. Neither, for that matter, did the West Cumbria Liberal Democrats. In fact, the Lib Dems seem to have forgotten we exist, having put out a press release regarding the selection of their candidate, quoting her as saying that they were “the only party fighting to protect the economy by staying in the Single Market and calling for a long-term solution to the crisis facing the NHS.”
So with no apparent interest from the other parties, why aren’t the Greens taking the moral high ground and demonstrating how an alliance might work? Well, we considered it. On hearing that Jamie Reed was planning to stand down, opinions had been circulating ahead of our AGM. Many members were conflicted about us standing and potentially splitting the progressive vote. So for us, it came down to a few key issues.
First and foremost is the elephant in the room – nuclear. There appears to be a lot of misinformation being spread about the state of nuclear power in Copeland, with many suggesting that an anti-nuclear stance will eradicate a vast number of jobs in the region. And news outlets including the BBC keep suggesting that there is currently an active nuclear power plant in Cumbria. Neither of these things are true. No nuclear power is generated in Cumbria. In fact Sellafield is home to the site of England’s very own Chernobyl – Windscale, the worst nuclear disaster ever to have occurred in the UK. Since the accident in 1957, a decommissioning process has been under way. The site is home to a vast array of extremely dangerous waste materials, and will provide employment for hundreds of years into the future. No matter how green anyone might be, it simply isn’t possible to “close” Sellafield, as some scaremongers like to pretend.
Distant commentators seem to think that the residents of Copeland have a romantic love affair with nuclear power. Obviously given the above, they don’t. In fact, a number of anti-nuclear campaign groups such as Radiation Free Lakeland and CORE (Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment) are among the most active political organisations in the area.
However, and despite what has happened at Windscale, plans have been afoot for some time for a new nuclear power plant to be built at Moorside – part of the Sellafield site (n.b. not “Moorfield”, as both Andrew Marr and Jeremy Corbyn said on Marr’s show). The Moorside planning process has been blighted with botches and incompetence more or less since the start – the most recent controversy occurring at the start of the new year when Toshiba (the majority shareholder in the company behind the project, NuGen) saw forty percent wiped off its company’s value after it revealed that its US subsidiary, Westinghouse Electric, may have overpaid by several billions of dollars for another nuclear construction and services business. Toshiba’s value fell another 16% last week when it announced even larger losses than it had anticipated. The company is also currently embroiled in an accounting scandal. NuGen is now scrabbling around for new investors and the new plant is in jeopardy.
Beyond the immediate financial issues, the Labour-led local council has raised repeated concerns about the lack of vital infrastructure to support the project. Earlier this month Councillor Stewart Young, leader of Cumbria County Council, said that it was “reaching the end of its tether” with the lack of support from government and NuGen. Without investment in infrastructure as soon as possible, he said that the power station could not be supported.
Of course, beyond all of this are the very legitimate Green reasons for opposing new nuclear power. There are massive public health risks if the plant were to fail, as Copeland knows all too well. There are public health risks from the radiation that any nuclear plant will produce. There is the matter of disposing of highly toxic nuclear waste. There is the fact that UK peak energy use has been in decline since 2007, and that the national grid may well not need the additional power by the time any prospective power plant does come online – in the mid-2020s at the very earliest. This point is bolstered by the fact that we could, and should, instead be focusing on making our buildings more efficient. And finally there is the fact that there are better renewable alternatives that are capable of bringing more jobs to the region: Tidal Lagoon Power – the company behind the new tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay – has already carried out much of the preliminary work necessary in establishing a similar project in West Cumbria.
So I hope you can see that an anti-nuclear stance isn’t quite the suicidal move that the mainstream media seem to be suggesting it is. And yet despite this, Jeremy Corbyn has apparently abandoned his anti-nuclear position, and the Labour message is that they love nuclear power. The Liberal Democrats have also given new nuclear power in Cumbria their blessing. Under such circumstances, it is simply impossible for the Greens to ally with either party.
The nuclear issue aside, we obviously have areas of agreement with both Labour and the Liberal Democrat campaigns. Chief among them is to save West Cumberland Hospital from losing vital departments such as its consultant-led maternity ward. North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust has been in a pretty dire financial situation for some time, and it has been desperately trying to balance its books. The situation is very distressing and the only solution appears to be more funding for the trust. Here we have faced a dilemma, is it wrong of us to stand a candidate when so much is at stake with the local hospital? Again, in my opinion, sadly not. I believe this primarily because Jamie Reed’s record of successfully defending local services is pretty poor. I do not see the election of a new Blairite Labour MP in Copeland as a guarantee that we won’t see the situation continue to worsen for local residents. Much of the groundwork for what we are now seeing happen to the NHS was laid by the Labour government that Jamie Reed ardently supported during his first term as an MP for the constituency.
And so we reach the final factor, and that is the sorry state of the Labour party. The last time a governing party won a seat from the opposition in a by-election was in 1982. Margaret Thatcher was surfing a wave of support with the Falklands War underway, and Bruce Douglas-Mann – the sitting MP for Mitcham and Morden – had triggered the by-election because he had decided to join the Social Democratic Party.
We are a very long way from a scenario anything like the above. Opinions of Theresa May’s government are, at best, mixed. Her portrayal in the media is far from positive, and with the current crisis in the NHS, it should be a cakewalk for Labour to retain this seat. If the Greens are required to abandon at least one key principle to prop up the limp opposition currently being offered by Labour, is this really something that we want to do?
To return to how I began this article, Labour activists seem to think we should simply stand aside. Though a number of activists have also, instead, mocked the Greens. Sniggering at the size of our parliamentary representation and joking that they’ll lose “tens and tens of votes” to the Green candidate. We are, apparently, Schrödinger’s party. Simultaneously so irrelevant that no-one should care what we do, while also being irresponsible for splitting the progressive vote and potentially causing Labour to lose the seat.
My belief is that under such circumstances, we had no choice but to stand. In the vein of seeking a progressive alliance, I am afraid to say we have to be cruel to be kind. And if Labour lose the seat by a margin smaller than the number of seats that we gain, maybe they will start taking us, and a progressive alliance, seriously. If we had decided to stand aside, no-one would have noticed or cared.
This is why I voted for us to stand in Copeland, and I was proud to be among an overwhelming majority of fellow members of my local party. If you live in Copeland, I hope I can convince you to vote Green on 23 February.