Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Michael Wills is worried…

North Swindon MP Michael Wills is worried. His speech to a fringe meeting at the conference of new Labour pressure group Compass, was reported on the front page of the Guardian in the lead article. Mr Wills is known to have a close friend by the name of Gordon. Perhaps this explains the prominence of his comments. At any rate he is warning of the prospect of electoral defeat at the next General Election. Whilst he recognises "profound disillusion and disnegagement" amongst Labour supports he fails to face up to the roots of this.

North Swindon MP Michael Wills’ is worried, and you can understand why. Speaking at a fringe meeting at a conference organised by the new Labour pressure group, Compass, he claimed that at the General Election “every single Labour MP on the doorstep reported profound disillusionment and disengagement”. This does have the merit of trying to grapple with reality, whilst the Prime Minister and his coterie merely seem to want deny that such a thing exists. But when it comes to an appreciation of the roots of this “profound disillusionment” of traditional Labour voters, Wills cannot himself face the reality. The problem it seems is that the voters will not listen to New Labour’s “message”. It is they who are at fault not New Labour!

“Unless we can get people to start listening to us, unless they are prepared to hear the message we are putting across, we are going to lose next time. There is no question of that.”

There are none so blind as cannot see. There are none so deaf as those who refuse to listen! Wills is suggesting that the problem is one of presentation rather than substance. The electors refuse to see the reality of New Labour’s ‘successes’. How very irrational of them. What Michael Wills and New Labour cannot face up to is the fact that it is what the government is doing which has alienated vast swathes of its traditional supporters; and not just the Iraq war which he says lost him 3,500 votes. It is very common to hear the refrain from people who have voted Labour for many years, ‘they are no different to the Tories’. Whilst there are differences with the Tories Blair reconstructed the Party on the same ground as Thatcherism. This involved the abandonment of the welfare state, not its ‘modernisation’, and the progressive marketisation of public services. They have even introduced a market into the NHS in which hospitals have to ‘compete’ for patients. In Wiltshire this has led to an unprecedented crisis, with the decimation of services (see http://martinwicks.blogspot.com/2006/05/health-crisis-what-crisis-health.html ).

Wills is right when he says that the electorate does not ‘trust us’. And he recognises that the ‘Presidential style’ of the Prime Minister is a problem. But he cannot face up to the fact that it is the substance of New Labour which is the reason for the disillusionment of its traditional supporters and the decline of its membership.

Wills is worried about losing his Parliamentary seat, of course. The crisis of New Labour in Swindon does not bode well for his chances. The Council, which was historically a Labour one for decades has seen a precipitous decline both in the Party’s organisation and in the number of councillors. Even in the Thatcher days the Tories did not gain control, even though they had the MP. Yet after 3 years of the Blair government Labour lost its majority on the Council, though remaining the largest party. In 2000 it had 28 councillors to 24 Tories. Today the Tories have 42 and Labour has only 12. Four Labour Councillors have defected to the Tories, one resigned and left local politics, and one broke with Labour over their support for increasing Councillors’ allowances at the same time as the Tories were cutting services.

The dilemma of New Labour in Swindon was in part summed up by an article in the Swindon Advertiser by Michael Wills and South Swindon’s ultra-New Labourite MP, Anne Snelgrove, on the future of the town. What criticism did they make of the Tory Council? That they are privatising council departments? That they are not opposing Bath University’s ultimatum on the location on which it wants to build a campus?1 That they are accepting vast numbers of new houses being imposed by an unelected body in the South West? That they are trying to rush through a proposal for an Academy which will be run by a private company? Alas, our two MPs accept all this, just as the Tories do.

Well might Private Eye ridicule Anne Snelgrove for her comment that ‘the country’ is ‘proud’ of the work of the Deputy Prime Minister.2 This is the man who has the Midas touch in reverse. He turns gold to dross. This is the man who has given power over our town (and others) to an unelected body which, at his department’s prompting tells us how many houses we ‘need’, regardless of our view. This is the man who has made the planning process less democratic. This is the man who has sought to eradicate Council Housing and still maintains the effective ban on Councils building new houses. The reality is that Prescott is the object of ridicule and contempt in equal measure, astutely summed up by Steve Bell’s cartoon, the bulldog caricature.3

So what are the profound differences with the Tories which the MP’s revealed in their article? Apparently the Tories are not “sufficiently ambitious” for the town. Instead of, dare we say, a bog-standard library, “why not plan for one that surpasses the best elsewhere”. Frankly, this is pathetic, providing an easy target for the Tories, who can say with some legitimacy, why didn’t Labour produce a new library in all the years they were in power? 4

We have also seen the spectacle of the MP’s complaining that the Tory Council does not build enough social housing. This is the cheek of Old Nick after 9 years of a New Labour government. One Labour Councillor informs me that he told Michael Wills, “it’s your government which is stopping Council house building”. As for Anne Snelgrove, as we discovered at the Defend Council Housing lobby of Parliament, she is opposed to Councils building their own houses. (See http://martinwicks.blogspot.com/2006/02/home-owning-democracy-whats-in-phrase.html )

Undoubtedly the decline in Labour’s support in Swindon reflects the national picture of disaffection amongst traditional labour supporters. But when a Labour candidate in Parks (a council estate where I live) manages barely a 100 majority over a Tory candidate you know the party is in trouble.

In the old days (certainly pre-Blair) political and ideological differences between the two major parties were significant enough to make defection from one to the other very rare. But that was before Blair’s political and ideological coup. That four councillors have crossed over to the Tories reflects the absence of real ideological differences.5 The recent defector Mavis Childs said that she wanted to get things done for her constituents. Their interests “come before party politics”, she says. Clearly, according to this logic, the only place to have a direct influence is in the ruling Tory group which has an absolute majority.

What New Labour in Swindon has yet to explain is why the Tories have gained such a big majority; why it has declined so precipitously. Amidst all the hype in the early Blair days we were told that the party was going to increase its membership to 1 million. In fact, so disgusted has much of the membership been with Blair that instead of an influx he has succeeded in more than halving the party membership. Perhaps our MPs can explain why, if the government has been such a ‘success’, party membership is less than half the 1997 level. We wait with baited breath. Perhaps the members failed to face up to reality just like the electorate.

Why should traditional Labour voters, never mind anybody else, vote for New Labour? This is the question posed as a result of 9 years of a ‘business friendly’, privatising government. What is the difference between what a Labour Council would do in office and what the Tory Council is doing now? Unless the electorate sees some positive reason to vote Labour again, then the Tories will maintain their stranglehold on the Council, at the expense of working class people. The Tories appear to be ‘getting things done’. If the policy of New Labour hardly differs from that of the Tories, then why not vote for the more effective or ‘efficient’ party? Such at least was the conclusion of Mavis Childs.

Labour can hang on and wait for the electorate to get fed up with the Tories, but overturning such a big majority could take a long time. If they want to campaign against them in a way which resonates with local people, and is believable, they have to have a different programme and policy. But here they face the twin obstacle of their government and their MPs, both of whom are New Labour zealots.

Labour could have allies to build opposition to the Tory Council. For instance, they could work with the local government unions to oppose the Tories privatising Council departments. Unfortunately, there is no sign as yet of them opposing the Tory policy.

Labour could campaign with the unions and tenants for the right of Councils to build Council housing once again. Two Labour councillors joined the delegation which lobbied Parliament in relation to the ‘fourth option’. The housing crisis facing the town is a major issue. House prices in Swindon are too high for many local people. All we see being built in the town centre at the moment are luxury flats. The Council house waiting list will not be cut without a Council house building programme. A campaign to change government policy, to allow Councils the right to build new Council housing would be a significant difference with the Tory Council.

Labour could campaign for the Housing benefit and Council Tax service to be brought back in-house. OK, it was they who privatised it, handing it over to WS Atkins with disastrous consequences.6 However, they could recognise it as a mistake and campaign for the service to be brought back in-house. Thus far the Party has missed the opportunity of criticising the Tory administration over its latest move in relation to Liberata (the company which took over from WS Atkins). These worshippers of ‘the market’ (the Tory Council in this case) have punished Liberata for failing to carry out their contract with the Council, by handing over to them an extra £850,000! You might imagine that if the company fails to carry out their contractual obligations to a satisfactory standard then they would take the financial hit rather than the Council Tax payers of Swindon, especially at a time when the Council was cutting services. Isn’t this supposed to be the ‘free market’? But even here New Labour has failed to attack the Tories for feather-bedding a private company with our money. What better opportunity than this to demand the service be brought back in-house?

Labour could campaign with the trades unions and local people against the Academy which is proposed to replace Headlands school. That would mean opposing government policy, of course. Yet Michael Wills was over the moon at the involvement of Honda in the proposed project. Labour movement people on the other hand are appalled at the involvement of an anti-union car firm in Education.

The Labour group could attack the Tory Council for its fraudulent ‘consultation’ on the issue. Lead member Garry Perkins has said that this is the only way that the people of the area will get a new school, so there is no debate about whether or not local people want it. Presumably we can discuss what colour the doors are. But because of New Labour’s support for the privatisation of education they have failed to defend the democratic rights of local people to genuinely debate whether or not they want to go down the route of an Academy.

Nobody in the wider labour movement in Swindon underestimates the problem that a big Tory majority on the Council represents to working people in general and the trades unions in particular. Even those of us who believe that a socialist political alternative to New Labour is necessary, would be in favour of a united front with Labour to build opposition to the Tory administration, if such a thing were possible. Yet if it was possible for Labour Councillors to work with people who they consider as political opponents (even the dreaded Socialist Unity) to jointly campaign against the BNP, why not to campaign for new Council housing, or in opposition to privatisation?

Michael Wills, without spelling it out, seemed to be saying in his speech that Blair should go. But what difference would Brown make when (as explained to me by another Labour Councillor) he is wedded to the very same policies as Blair? Certainly some traditional Labour voters might be persuaded to hold their nose and vote for the party again if the much hated Blair departed, but it is the ‘free market’, means testing, privatising agenda of New Labour, as well as its support for a right wing Republican administration in the USA which lies at the root of the “profound disillusionment and disengagement” which Wills admitted to.

Martin Wicks

[1] Bath University had said that it wants to build on a site adjacent to Coate Water Country Park, or else it will not build a campus in the town. 27,000 signatures have been collected against this unpopular proposal. See http://savecoate.blogspot.com
[2] She has made quite a profession out of asking what might be described as ‘please give a job’ questions, being duly rewarded with some junior post or other.
[3] Prescott is pictured as a dog called ‘market’, pulled along by the lead by Blair. It sums up the role of lap dog which Prescott has performed, doing his master’s bidding, presenting a ‘left’ face for Blair’s neo-liberalism.
[4] For the benefit of people outside of Swindon, the central library has inhabited for many years prefabricated huts in the town centre.
[5] One of them is actually a Tory who crossed over to New Labour and has now gone back to the Tories.
[6] A massive backlog of work led to elderly people (on benefit and hence having their council tax paid for them) being threatened with eviction, since it had not been paid, through no fault of their own.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Standing up for the members

New General Secretary Paul Kenny, in a speech to the GMB Congress said that politicians were like babies nappies; “they need changing regularly, and for the same reason.” It was a pity that the GMB Congress didn’t act according to this unusual dictum when Blair was invited to speak to the delegates on Tuesday.

He was treated like a good friend with whom we have some minor differences. There were plenty of hostile questions from the delegates, in the question and answer session; on Iraq, ‘reform’ of the public sector, pensions etc. But he wasn’t barracked or heckled. He was apparently treated with ‘respect’ instead of the contempt which he has earned. Blair gave a robust defence of his right wing neo-liberal policies of course. When the session was over some delegates (I was told by somebody present less than half, but nevertheless a significant number) gave him a standing ovation. These are the same people who passed a document, GMB at Work, which abandons the idea of partnership with the employers, which Blair’s government considers to be the mark of a ‘modern’ trade union. These were the same delegates who have voted against privatisation of public services, and to affiliate to the Keep Our NHS Public campaign.

Perhaps some of them are Labour loyalists who can only smile as the government kicks them. Probably most of them did not want to give the impression of hostility or ‘splits’ between the unions and government in front of the media. In giving a standing ovation to Blair they were failing to do what they should be doing, standing up for the members. How can anyone give a standing ovation to the man responsible for introducing ‘reforms’ which are destroying the very foundations of the NHS?

In the Congress the top table ruled out a resolution which called for the right of branches to support candidates other than Labour ones, on the ground that this would lead to the union’s expulsion from the Labour Party. If you hold the position that it is necessary for the trades unions to ‘stay in and fight’ or ‘win back the party’, then isn’t it necessary to break with the political programme and methods of the Blairites? Isn’t it necessary to recognise that Blair and all those who support his politics are enemies of the trades unions?

If the unions stay in the party that is their choice, but they cannot defend the interests of their members without demanding a fundamental change of political direction. It matters not a jot if the party is headed by Blair or Brown, or anybody else for that matter, if the policy is the same; ‘free market’ neo-liberalism.

It is time for the abandonment of an approach which says, on the one hand the government has done some positive things, on the other some negative, as if they balance each other out.
Blair is not the devil incarnate, of course. He did not move the party into the neo-liberal camp without support of others. Indeed, it was largely the trade union leaders who delivered the party to him so easily.

It is the collaboration with the government which the union leaders have for the most part carried out, which has allowed it to get away with a programme of abandonment of the welfare state, privatisation of public services, and support for a right wing republican administration in the USA. An unequivocal break with the politics of Blairism is necessary if the unions are to be taken seriously. They can’t stand up for the members and for Blair.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Nuclear power, environmental crisis and the trades unions

Having opposed building new nuclear power plants in its White Paper in 2003 the government has launched a new energy review which can have no other purpose than to overturn the government's previous position. The suspicion that the Great Leader had already decided that a new generation of nuclear power plants is necessary was confirmed by his recent speech to the CBI which exposed the bogus nature of the 'review' process. There is little support for such a move, yet ironically, the major trades unions are appealing to the government to follow this course. Martin Wicks examines the issue of nuclear energy and the policy of the unions. (From Issue 17 of the trade union magazine SOLIDARITY.)

Blair's speech to the CBI has created a furore, and not only amongst those who are inveterate opponents of nuclear energy. The speech not only pre-empted the review, it was designed to silence opposition within the Cabinet. Apparently there will be no white paper to decide on a new generation of nuclear power plants since this would serve as a focus for opposition.

In his speech Blair said:

"Essentially, the twin pressures of climate change and energy security are raising energy policy to the top of the agenda in the UK and around the world. The facts are stark. By 2025, if current policy is unchanged there will be a dramatic gap on our targets to reduce CO2 emissions, we will become heavily dependent on gas and at the same time move from being 80% to 90% self-reliant in gas to 80% to 90% dependent on foreign imports, mostly from the Middle East, and Africa and Russia.

These facts put the replacement of nuclear power stations, a big push on renewables and a step change on energy efficiency, engaging both business and consumers, back on the agenda with a vengeance. If we don't take these long-term decisions now we will be committing a serious dereliction of our duty to the future of this country."

Blair assembles facts to justify a pre-determined argument. He does not examine the facts in order to come to a conclusion. There is a fundamental contradiction which underlies his position. His government has long supported a liberalised energy market. There is nothing to stop 'the market' delivering new nuclear power stations now; except the risk and the “eye-wateringly large costs” (a Treasury prediction according to the Guardian).

The current market structure has failed

But if the market works, asked the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, why is a government 'decision' necessary in the first place?

“…in the context of the Government's faith in liberalised market it is unclear what any 'decision' or 'decision on nuclear' would amount to. We put this point repeatedly to the Secretary of State, yet he was unable to offer any explanation. The real issue facing the government is in fact whether the current structure of the liberalised market and policy framework will deliver sufficient investment in low-carbon forms of generation in a timely manner. Yet the consultation document does not address this adequately perhaps because to do so would be tantamount to admitting that the current market structure has failed.”
“Keeping the lights on: Nuclear, Renewables and Climate Change”. House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee Report.

Blair's government will not admit that the privatised energy market is fundamentally flawed, since this would bring its 'free market' ideological pack of cards crashing down. Already, in 2002 the government was obliged to rescue the privatised nuclear company British Energy at a cost of billions to the taxpayer (including decommissioning it could add up to £12 billion).

Today there is little support for a new generation of nuclear plants. The Sustainable Development Commission Report said that “nuclear power is not the answer to tackling climate change or security of supply”. There is “no justification for bringing forward a new nuclear power programme at present.” The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee EAC) is likewise opposed, supporting the emphasis of the 2003 White Paper on energy efficiency and renewables as cornerstones of future energy policy. In it's report it says:

“Over the next ten years, nuclear power cannot contribute either to the need for more generating capacity or to carbon reductions as it simply could not be built in time.”

The Secretary of State for Energy has admitted that it might take from 15 to 17 years before a new nuclear power station could become operational.

The 'generating gap'

But what about the energy gap which is predicted? The EAC has estimated that by 2016 between 15 and 20GW of electricity generating plant will be decommissioned; nearly a quarter of total UK generating capacity. 8GW of nuclear capacity is scheduled to close by 2014, and by 2023, only Sizewell B will be operational.

The government's own energy White Paper in 2003 endorsed the view of its Performance and Innovation Unit that new gas-fired plant, renewables and energy efficiency measures could make up for the potential 'generating gap'.

The very idea of insufficient energy accepts as a given that energy use will remain at current levels. It fails to address the fact that the capitalist system is a system of phenomenal waste, because production and energy use is determined by the narrow interests of 'efficiency', measured by the balance sheet and profit levels.

The failure of the Blair government to subsidise low-carbon generating technologies, which are currently more expensive than gas or coal, results from its ideological free market fundamentalism. The EAC poses the question:

“If the government does indeed make a decision on nuclear, it is unclear why it should not also come to a decision on off-shore wind, marine, or micro-CHP, let alone the many possible measures to support energy efficiency.”

The acceptance in the 2003 White Paper of the possibility of reductions in energy use has been abandoned, partly because state intervention has the unacceptable stench of 'Old Labour', and partly because it contradict with the logic of capitalist production, which is heresy for New Labour.

'Environmental sustainability'

Environmental sustainability is a much used phrase in all manner of government documents. But such an aim is impossible without serious action to stop the waste of resources which results from a system in which 'growth' is seen as a positive thing irrespective of its social and environmental consequences. As Ken Livingstone pointed out in a Guardian article, up to two thirds of electricity is wasted because of the centralised nature of production, and its transmission over long distances. The EAC report identifies the need for 'distribution generation' (small scale generation on a local basis at the point of demand) rather than the wasteful national grid system. Distributed generation offers big improvements in efficiency, particularly in the case of 'combined heat and power'.

Electricity losses on the UK grid system are estimated on average at around 10%, whilst the efficiency of coal power stations can be as low as 35%. If both the electricity and the heat load can be utilised, efficiencies of more than 90% can be achieved. It is estimated that if half of the domestic central heating boilers in the UK were replaced by micro-CHP units, by 2020 the total generating capacity would amount to 13GW, delivering at peak winter periods as much as the current nuclear power stations.

The centralised distribution networks of all manner of service industries provide 'economies of scale' for the big companies. But the cost of these centralised systems is vast numbers of heavy goods vehicles criss-crossing the country, pouring out pollutants and burning up oil, taking, for example food to be processed at one end of the country, only to return from whence it came. This may be 'efficient' from the standpoint of the balance sheet of the companies, but it is entirely irrational and inefficient given its social, health and environmental impact.

Shift from road to rail?

The EAC criticises the government for failing to clarify the nature of its current review. If it is supposed to be a wider debate (rather than one narrowly focused on electricity production) it would need to address all aspects of energy consumption, in particular transport and the domestic sector, in both of which energy consumption is significantly increasing “due to the fact that government policies diametrically opposed to the target of 60% carbon reduction by 2050”, set out in the Energy White Paper. This is apparent when you consider the wreckage of its transport policy.

Of all the failures of the Blair government, probably one of the greatest is in relation to transport. It is impossible to tackle the environmental crisis without halting and reversing the growth in road transport. In the early days of the current government John Prescott made the statement that if there had been no shift from road to rail within five years then he would have failed in his job. This shift was said to be necessary to cut emissions which contributed to global warming. When the five years was up and Prescott was reminded of his comments he denied them, though they were a matter of record. The government's transport strategy was abandoned and they have since accepted there will be an increase in the number of cars on the road.

Whilst they were forced to close down Railtrack as a share trading company, the government refused to re-nationalise the industry, partly for ideological reasons (they are free market fundamentalists) and partly because Brown does not want the company's debt added to his public balance sheet. Even worse the Department for Transport has now issued a timetable for the railways which institutes cuts in services which can only have the impact of driving people back on the road. In rural areas in particular the cuts are considerable even though, to take parts of the South West, local service use has increased by up 40% in the last five years. The framework timetables were determined purely in order to cut the level of subsidy.

The rail unions and socialists have long argued that the only way to get more people to transfer from road to rail is to provide cheap and reliable services. But the refusal of the government to end the disastrous experiment of rail privatisation has meant that private companies are leeching money out of the system and pushing prices up to such an extent that not many people can afford the price of tickets. That the number of journeys has increased is a reflection of the increasing level of congestion on roads. Nationally, the 1 billion passenger journey mark has been passed for the first time in 50 years. Despite this the government has accepted that they can do nothing to halt the increase in car numbers.

The nuclear record

Successive studies by British governments in 1989, 1995 and 2002 all came to the conclusion that in a liberalised electricity market, electric utilities will not build nuclear power plants without government subsidies and guarantees capping costs. Even when Thatcher decided on a new round of building, only one plant, Sizewell B was built. In 1989 when the electricity industry was being privatised, the nuclear plants were not attractive to private investors, and the government was forced to withdraw them from sale and had to create two publicly owned companies, Nuclear Electric and Scottish Nuclear, to own and operate them. Tory Energy Minister of the time, John Wakeham bemoaned the fact that “unprecedented guarantees” were being sought. “I am not willing to underwrite the private sector in this way.” Good God, this is the 'free market'.

The 1995 review led to the privatisation of the more modern plants, in a new company British Energy. However, the review found no economic case for new plants. British Energy proposed the building of new plants to replace the aging Magnox ones, but insisted these would not be feasible without government subsidy. The 2003 review likewise concluded that new build was not economic.

Poor operational performance

The history of civil nuclear power in the UK has been characterised (in the words of the EAC) by “extensive government subsidies, time and cost overruns, and poor operational performance”. In the case of Dungeness B it took 24 years from the start of construction to commercial operation and the plant has only operated on average at 37% of its planned generating capacity since then. In the case of the latest one, Sizewell B, the UK's only pressurised water reactor, construction costs escalated form £1.8 billion to over £3 billion, whilst generating costs have been estimated at around twice the current cost of electricity from gas or coal.

Much has been said about the so-called generation 3 plants being much more efficient. But no western country has yet built one, and there is nothing to say that technological difficulties will not be encountered. The EAC says:

“The past history of the nuclear industry gives little confidence about the timescales and costs of new build. This does not mean that a new generation of nuclear power stations cannot be built to time and cost, but it does mean that investors have little basis for assessing the risks involved and may, therefore, require a higher rate of return.”

'Clean fuel'

Any cursory investigation of the history of the industry and its costs provides sufficient reason for opposing a new generation of plants. To assert as some do that nuclear power is “clean” is ridiculous. An accident at a nuclear power plant has the potential to have catastrophic consequences as Chernobyl in the Ukraine and Three Mile Island in the United States have shown. Britain has had its own consequences of accidents at Winscale (now Sellafield) and even the Irish government has been pushed to challenge the continued production at Sellafield as a result of concentrated clusters of cancers in Ireland, downwind from the plant. Supporters of new build argue that the new generation is much safer, but no industry can be made accident proof, least of all nuclear power. Even worse, when the industry is privately owned, with the profit motive at its heart, the danger of accidents is even greater.

Information recently gained by a Liberal Democrat MP from Minister Malcolm Wicks indicates 57 accidents at nuclear plants since this government came to office. They ranged from radiation leaks and machinery failure to contamination of ground water and employees' clothes, and a fire. Eleven were serious enough to be classed as an "incident" or "serious incident" on international nuclear measures.

Three incidents were recorded last year, all at Sellafield, Cumbria, including a large leak of highly radioactive nuclear fuel which forced the closure of the Thorp reprocessing plant in April. High radiation was also detected in the Hales storage plant and three staff were contaminated while carrying out maintenance.

For all the talk of terrorism by Blair the risk of terrorist attacks on nuclear plants does not seem to be on his radar. Calculations produced by the Oxford Research Group suggest that an attack on the high level waste tanks at Sellafield would dwarf the scale of the Chernobyl accident.


Then there is the cost of decommissioning. The latest estimated cost from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is £70 billion. A new generation would drive the cost up. As it is the problem of storage of nuclear waste has yet to be resolved. No community wants a nuclear dump on its doorstep. The problem has yet to be resolved anywhere in the world. Even in the USA no long term dump has yet been built. New build would create more waste to be dealt with.
Unions to the rescue?

Ironically, among the few supporters of building a new generation of nuclear plants, we find some of the country's major trades unions. Whilst their support was once pragmatic, based on the fact that they had members in the industry, they have now picked up on the argument supported by a very small number of erstwhile environmentalists, such as the Gaia theorist James Lovelock, that nuclear power will be necessary to tackle global warning. In the case of Amicus it approaches the question from the standpoint of energy prices; the need to cut prices so that British business can 'compete successfully' in the global market. Amicus appears to believe that regulation of the market can produce the goods.

“The market alone is unable to deliver a reliable, efficient and secure supply of energy. The Government must set a broad framework with the necessary fiscal and policy regimes to allow the market to deliver (our emphasis) and to ensure the security of supply.”

In the case of the GMB, National Officer Gary Smith said:

"GMB is campaigning for a new generation of nuclear power stations on existing sites. This will improve the UK's security of energy supply and preserve our nuclear technology industry. It should also maintain existing jobs and in the longer term create new ones. However, GMB believes it is vital that expenditure on the new nuclear programme is not at the expense of investment in other equally important energy sources. The current level of investment in renewables, bio-fuels and micro generation must be maintained."

The GMB, at least expressed its concern over private ownership of nuclear energy. In March it responded to the proposed privatisation of British Nuclear Group by raising the prospect of a 'Railtrack in the nuclear industry'. The day after Blair's speech it said:

"GMB consider that nuclear power has an important role to play as part of a balanced energy policy. However GMB do not wish to see a 'railtrack' in the nuclear industry. The public will only be convinced that the safety concerns - that rightly arise - will be dealt with properly if the industry is in public hands and properly accountable to the public. Also GMB consider that energy matters are too important to be regulated by a quango. The government itself must take this role and be answerable to parliament for it."

Both the GMB and Amicus talk about a 'balanced' energy policy. But they do not challenge the idea that there will be a 'gap' in provision which is one of the primary reasons being given for the supposed need for new nuclear power stations. The question of the energy crisis cannot be analysed in isolation from the of the context of the environmental crisis with its origins in the logic of capitalism; the constant war for market share, increased 'productivity' and profit levels.


It is abundantly clear that there can be no new building of nuclear power plants without either government subsidy or a government commitment on prices (making the consumer pay higher prices). The government has said that there will be no public money for such investment. However, it will have to choose between accepting that there will be no new generation of plants, or it will have to decide to throw public money at the private companies to induce them to take the risk of 'generation 3' with virtually no experience to draw on.

The trades unions, instead of offering support for a new generation of nuclear power stations should be challenging the government's faith in liberalisation. A 'decision' on nuclear power should not be based on a technical debate which accepts the current economic framework. If even the EAC, not peopled with revolutionaries, can see the possibility of significant reductions in energy consumption, then why can't the trades unions?

The 'rules' of the market do not need to be followed. The government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela has given oil to impoverished countries in the Caribbean at below market rates. It has exchanged oil with Cuba in return for doctors to provide medical services to the Venezuelan poor. In our own experience the Atlee government did not accept that health care had to be organised as a saleable commodity, available only to those who could purchase it.

A political and ideological leap, however, is necessary. Tackling the environmental crisis will not be done by 'market mechanisms'. These have recently been subject to ridicule in the case of 'credits' to pollute which have apparently been dished out a bit too liberally, much to the amusement of the polluters in chief in Washington.

A political struggle within the unions to abandon their support for a new generation of nuclear power plants is an important part of the struggle to radicalise them. It would be a political disaster of the first magnitude if the trades unions found themselves in the camp of the Blair government, in opposition to the environmental movements, and especially the radicalised young people who should be in the unions, but often tend to see them as self-interested conservative organisations supporting a neo-liberal government.

The Amicus position especially epitomises the idea of 'social partnership' in which the unions are in alliance with British business in order to 'succeed' in the cut-throat global marketplace. Such a position is one of complete prostration before the logic and rules of an economic system which wastes resources and lives on an unprecedented historical scale.

Supporting new nuclear power stations would be a step back for the unions, effectively supporting amongst other things large subsidies for big business at a great social cost for workers across the world. Socialists and opponents of this organised system of waste must fight to break the unions from their national perspective towards alliances with workers across the world and movements of the oppressed and impoverished, fighting against the economic, social, environmental and political consequences of an economic system which threatens an environmental and social catastrophe. New nuclear power plants would add to the danger and to the criminal waste of resources.

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