Monday, February 27, 2006
The Scottish Labour Party yesterday agreed to support the building of nuclear power stations north of the Border.To call this good news would be a vast understatement. Reading between the lines this is a genuine popular move from the rank & file & thus a "surprise" move for a motion produced by Amicus. Looking at the Scottish Labour website there was no motion up on nuclear but there was one on Sunday morning on Growing Scotland's Economy (good to see them at least willing to discuss such things) & I suspect Amicus may have put an amendment to it. The Labour website doesn't have anything on this yet which also suggests it wasn't planned.
In a surprise move on the final day of the party conference in Aviemore, delegates overwhelmingly approved a call for ageing nuclear plants to be replaced or renewed. Allan Wilson, the deputy enterprise minister and a member of the party's Scottish policy forum, confirmed that the views of the conference would be taken into account when Labour draws up its manifesto for the 2007 elections.
The official Executive policy - agreed with the Lib Dems - is that there should be no decision until the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management reports to the UK government on disposal of radioactive waste. But there is growing speculation that the committee report, expected in the summer or early autumn, will say that waste can be safely stored and that Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, will then decide in favour of building new nuclear power stations.
In Scotland, the final say over whether new stations get the go-ahead lies with the Executive under energy and planning legislation and ministers will be forced to decide one way or the other.
Yesterday's vote to endorse nuclear power as part of a balanced energy policy, including "clean coal" and new, renewable technology such as wind and wave power, came after a motion proposed by the Amicus union, which represents nuclear workers.
Hugh Scullion, of Amicus, said: "It is just plain daft to rely on one energy-generating solution and future generations will not thank us for making that mistake. We support a balanced energy policy that promotes the use of all available energy in the most productive manner possible. This should include conventional fossil fuels, coal and oil, gas, renewables and nuclear."
Dr Elaine Murray, the MSP for Dumfries, said: "We cannot continue to hide forever behind a sentence from the coalition agreement that says Scottish Labour does not support the further development of nuclear power stations while waste issues remain unresolved." She said that the nuclear waste issue had to be resolved and she added that new-generation nuclear power stations produced much less waste than older plants.
The Labour decision is unlikely to split the coalition. Sources close to Nicol Stephen, the deputy first minister, believe that when the committee on waste reports, the two parties will agree that they will study its findings, taking them to the 2007 elections. However, it now seems certain that in the elections, Labour will be pro-nuclear and the Lib Dems, still their most likely coalition partners, implacably opposed to the idea.
This is not an immediate solution to everything. If this can only go ahead after the 2007 elections we are not out of the woods. It takes the Japanese 4 years to build a reactor but most westerners have assumed about 12, the difference being 8 years for the paperwork. With Hunterston due to close in 2011 we would in practice need a short extension even if they started building on day one after the election. We are very much in the later minutes of the eleventh hour if we want to avoid blackouts.
Beyond that there is the long term. Avoiding blackouts is only one thing - we should & could have a genuine world class inexpensive electricity system able to end fuel poverty (& hypothermia). This would involve actually increasing our reactors & stopping shelling out for nonsense like windmills. Since this was passed by an overwhelming majority a concensus on this may, despite platitudes, be achievable.
I suspect that Labour's scare from the Dunfermline by-election has concentrated minds wonderfully - they now have an important policy on which they are sensible & the SLD & SNP are clearly silly. Indeed the novel option of the next Scottish Executive being formed by Labour & Tories in an alliance designed to prevent blackouts is a real possibility. The SNP & SLD will need to put in a bit of thought.
Despite what sources close to Nicol Stephen say about studying the report all this would do would be to ensure that in the pre-election period, the SLD were to be seen to be delaying & obfuscating an urgently needed decision. He has made it clear that he opposes nuclear. I happen to know that the party has refused debate to 2 pro-nuclear motions (in which I was not involved) & one amendment (in which I was). I have also previously mentioned that the Glasgow Lib Dem Councillors broke ranks with the party leadership to publicly vote for more nuclear power. Thus the Scotsman's assurance that the Lib Dems will be "implacably" opposed to nuclear may be wrong(though going into the election with a placable commitment would look silly).
Sources close to Neil Craig say that the the forthcoming conference debate nominally on radioactive waste but actually on nuclear power as a whole will be interesting & regrets that he & Steuart Campbell (the 2 people who spoke in favour last time it was discussed) will probably be unable to attend.
The programme of any coalition is subject to agreement between the parties involved and will, by definition, be a compromise between their respective manifestos. Ordinarily you would expect the balance of the programme to reflect the relative support of the parties. In Scotland, this has not been the case largely because Labour value being in power and haven't fully cottoned on to this point. As a result, the Liberal Democrats have been able to rack up some notable acheivements as they have been nimbler in the negotiating process.
There is no contradiction in either party in the Scottish Executive having a policy which differs from that being followed by the Executive. Labour are now seemingly in favour of nuclear power whilst the Liberal Democrats are not - both are likely to fight the next election on these positions.
To take another example, proportional representation for local government elections has never been Labour policy but it's now on the statute book. It's instructive that Liberal Democrat spokesmen weren't whinging about their coalition partners whilst the strong opposition to this policy was being expressed within the Labour Party.
The end result of all this is that it's not contradictory for a party to essentially be in a position where they may take a different position to a coalition of which they are a member. Given that the Westminster elections will shortly be the only ones not subject to some form of PR it is something that will become more common as well.