Information in times of stress

I’ve just been told that one Paul Flynn, MP for Newport in Wales, had a go at me in the Commons a couple of months ago for my comments during the first days of the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmhansrd/cm150617/halltext/150617h0001.htm).

On looking the good Mr Flynn up I find that by all accounts he appears to be on the Left of the Labour Party. Yet, oddly, he seems to be a kind of antimatter version of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn has approached the Labour leadership contest saying he will only focus on the substance of the arguments and will absolutely refuse to indulge in personal attacks: Flynn seems determined only to attack the integrity of anyone who holds a different view and will absolutely refuse to indulge in reasoned debate on the issues. I can only hope they do not end up in the same room together as the annihilation explosion could be devastating.

I am not too fussed as I don’t imagine many people will be interested in the views of an obscure backbencher but I have written to him in the following terms.

Dear Mr Flynn,

I note that in Hansard a couple of months ago you are quoted saying that at the time of the Fukushima accident I was on TV indulging in “ludicrous PR spin” and “praising the explosions of hydrogen as something of benefit”.

I wonder if you are in a position to offer me a reference for this quotation, as I do not recognise it? If I recall correctly, after the hydrogen explosion at Unit 1 at Fukushima I said something along the lines of “Bizarre as this may sound, in the context of what is happening at the plant the hydrogen explosion wasn’t a terribly important event”. I stick to this statement – indeed I did not realise it was anything particularly controversial. Presumably, given your attack on me, you take the opposite position – i.e. that the hydrogen explosion was more serious than the threats offered by the risk of the containment vessels being breached at Units 1-3 or of serious uncovery of the spent fuel in the ponds especially of Unit 4 but also of the other five units at various times. I do not agree with this point of view – in my opinion either of these latter events would have been immeasurably more serious. The hydrogen explosions resulted in very little release of activity in the context of the accident as a whole and very little if any structural damage to either cores or fuel ponds – but of course as a scientist I am always happy to change my mind if new information comes along. I would be interested to know your reasons for holding that opposite view.

But in any case I cannot believe that I “praised the explosions of hydrogen as something of benefit” in the way you state and certainly have no recollection of doing so. It is indeed my opinion that the alternative to venting the hydrogen and risking its exploding in the outer containment – which was to let the hydrogen pressure build up in the reactor pressure vessels until the seals blew, releasing vastly more radioactivity – would have been far worse. From this point of view the action made operational sense. But surely that is not “praising” these explosions in the way you seem to imply? (Again, I presume had you been in charge you would have taken the opposite course?)

Once again, then, I would be grateful if you could provide me with the source of the quote so I can check whether you have provided an honest and balanced reflection of my comments. In return, below I offer a couple of references for things I actually did say.

As a final point, I am not saying I got everything ‘right’ during that first month – information and misinformation were coming thick and fast and commentating was at times sheer guesswork (as I frequently made clear when commentating live – recorded soundbites rarely allow such uncertainty to be expressed of course). As one example, I said (it’s still on the BBC website at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13017282): “At Reactor 4, where there was an unusually large amount of spent fuel in the pond, there seems to have been damage to the zirconium fuel rods, and, possibly, a release of hydrogen – there was at any rate another explosion, which damaged the outer building.” As events subsequently showed this was far too pessimistic – the spent fuel was fine and the hydrogen had come from Unit 3 through a shared vent – and I have to accept that in making this point and unjustifiably ‘talking up’ the seriousness of the situation I may have caused fears that later proved unfounded. No doubt at other points I may have said things that proved too optimistic: I do recall at one point saying I thought they may have turned the corner on controlling Unit 1 which turned out not to be the case.  Though I did not set out to exaggerate (or understate) the effects of the accident but to give a balanced picture as I saw things, such ‘errors’, if that they be (I think they made sense given the information at the time), are inevitable in real time. If the standard needed to avoid having one’s integrity impugned under the cloak of parliamentary privilege is 100% accurate foresight then I suspect very few would venture to give their honest opinion of unfolding events.

Incidentally, since you did not make reference to it in your Commons speech I presume you missed it but this is what I told Channel 4 News on March 30 2011 (still on Channel 4 website at http://www.channel4.com/news/fukushima-clean-up-will-take-decades-and-cost-billions). “Malcolm Grimston, energy specialist at think tank Chatham House, told Channel 4 News that the process [of decommissioning the reactors] could take years and cost billions – but stressed the Japanese would be entering uncharted waters. ‘This is uncharted territory, a lot of new technology will be developed to deal with these reactors. The closest to this we have is Three Mile Island, where there was a partial core meltdown – I think about 40 per cent. The clean-up process lasted from 1979 to 1993, so almost 15 years, and cost £1 billion. That was £1 billion in 1993 money, so obviously a lot more now,’ he said. ‘Also now we have got four reactors damaged, not just a single one like at Three Mile Island, and the complicating factor of what state the spent fuel is in the ponds. At the moment there are huge imponderables, but whatever happens, the answer is long and expensive.’ Apart from exaggerating the problem again – we haven’t really got four ‘reactors’ damaged as the reactor itself in Unit 4 is fine – I don’t see how you can describe this as “ludicrous PR spin”, even though I did work for the UK Atomic Energy Authority over 20 years ago.

An academic’s reputation is vital to their standing: I believe you have made a very unbalanced and unfair attack on mine, offering me no right of reply – I think you should at least justify that I actually said what you attribute to me.

One horseman of the apocalypse and three also rans?

To an outsider who has resisted the temptation to put my £3 in and have a punt on the Labour leadership race it is proving high grade spectator sport. A slightly patronising attempt to ‘widen the debate’ from some of Jeremy Corbyn’s nominators, presumably in the hope that the far Left would be put back into its box forever, now looks like one of recent times’ most spectacular own goals.

The policies of the Left have never been sustainable in the UK. Corbyn has a kind of inverted charisma but we should recall that even Attlee’s landslide 145 seat majority in 1945 had all but gone by 1950 – just a five seat majority – and the Conservatives were back in power the following year with a 16 seat margin. But that is not to say they are without a certain allure.

The contrast between the way in which the Labour Party views Tony Blair and the Conservatives view Margaret Thatcher is extraordinary and I think speaks deeply as to the ultimate seriousness of the two Parties. On the face of it their prime ministerial careers were remarkably similar. Both served as Prime Minister for an unusually long period – almost ten years for Blair, more than eleven for Thatcher (only Harold Wilson’s interrupted eight years from 1964-1970 and 1974-1976 coming close since the War). Both had a perfect electoral record – three wins no defeats – unmatched in the 20th/21st century. Both were ultimately pushed out of office not by the electorate but by their own parties, albeit in different ways. And both faced deteriorating relationships with their Chancellors of the Exchequer, the key axis in any government (the closeness of Cameron and Osborne has been a central factor in the stability of the Cameron governments of both colours).

Yet while it would be an exaggeration to say that Thatcher has entirely retained the fanatical adulation that she enjoyed in the years immediately after her downfall among the rank and file of the Tory Party, her memory remains deeply respected within the Party today. The opposite is the case with Blair, whose reputation seems to fall lower with each passing year – ‘the most reviled former Prime Minister of the last century’ as he has been dubbed.

Those of the Left refer to the Blair years as ‘an anomaly’. Yet it is now over forty years (1974) since the Labour Party won a General Election while being led by anyone but Blair. Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock, Brown, Miliband all failed. (In the same period three different Conservative leaders won elections outright, with only two – Hague and Howard – never being victorious.) In effect the view of the Left is that winning General Elections is an ‘anomaly’ – retaining that slightly nauseating veneer of moral superiority and doctrinal purity is more important than actually being in a positon to implement some of their policies.

Everything about the current leadership election – ignoring the problem of ‘entryism’, a spectacular own goal but not I suspect the decisive factor in Corbyn’s rise by any means – suggests that this remains Labour’s attitude. The Conservatives went through their own brief period in the 1990s and early 2000s when they retreated into the margins of their own comfort zone but it didn’t last. Ultimately the reason the Conservatives are the natural party of Government and Labour the natural party of opposition is that this is the way they view themselves.

And yet … let’s try to look at this from a different angle. Where might Labour regain votes to give itself its next brief period in power? And which of the four leadership candidates is best places to deliver them? One might think that the easiest source of votes in from those who have not voted at all. That was around 34% of the electorate in 2015 – a jolly sight better than the 41% of 2001 but way above the 22% seen as recently as 1992. No fewer than 42% of eligible voters under the age of 25 failed to take the opportunity to vote this year (though in 2005 it was a staggering 62%, showing clearly that it is not true that young people today are more distant from the political process than they were a decade ago).

Which of the fantastic four is most likely to appeal to these non-voters, especially the young ones, and inspire them to engage? Just as Nicola Sturgeon hit a powerful chord with the young voters of Scotland (and the overall 2015 turnout was over 71% north of the Border), so one suspects that Corbyn is in a much stronger position, with his crypto rock star status, than any of the others.

Then we have the Labour defectors to UKIP and the Greens. I’ve never been convinced that UKIP is a ‘right wing’ part in economic terms whatever its social policy might be (I say ‘whatever’ because I have no idea what it actually is – it seems to lay claim to libertarianism while wishing to impose very heavily on lifestyles of which it does not approve): despite the assumptions beforehand, UKIP did much more harm to Labour, taking votes from it in relatively marginal seats, than it did to the Conservatives where its rural brand served generally to reduce embarrassingly large Tory majorities to merely comfortable ones. UKIP seemed to gain in areas where dispossessed people felt that New Labour had abandoned them. Which of the four candidates is most likely to persuade these traditional Labour voters to return to the fold, to make them feel that he or she is in it for their interests? Step up JC.

Much the same goes for the Greens but one social class up. The trendy, rich, slightly guilty middle class socialists who abandoned Labour for largely the same reasons as their northern working class counterparts may well find themselves drawn back if there were a leader who spoke the language of attacking big business, putting the environment at the heart of things, strengthening local ties and so on. Who could offer this best?

What about Scotland? Are Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham sufficiently different from Jim Murphy, the former leader of Labour in Scotland who was washed away alongside all of his colleagues, to take on the (partly but not wholly fictional) mighty image of Ms Sturgeon? Who could rival her ability to fill halls with enthusiastic fans and still have them queueing outside? Not such a tough question perhaps.

And finally, what about all those who are fed up with the spin and gloss of politics and just yearn for someone who says what they mean, mean what they say and present a ‘take me or leave me’ offer to the electorate?

I have no idea what these figures might add up to. But let’s indulge in idle speculation. Let’s say Corbyn inspires an extra 5% of the electorate to turn out (bringing the rest of the UK up to the Scottish level) and four fifths of those vote for him. Let’s say he manages to win back half of those 14% of those who voted who went to UKIP and an extra 3% of the vote from the Greens. In total this would add around 14 points to Labour’s share of the vote which had fallen to around 30% against the Tories’ 38%. It seems to me that the other candidates would be far less likely to achieve such gains within these groups. If we throw in say 20 extra seats in Scotland, again a higher likelihood under Corbyn that the other, and things look very interesting.

Against this of course must be weighed how many of Labour’s more moderate current voters might abandon them. That is a far more likely prospect if Corbyn does win – it could indeed include several members of the Party right up to Parliamentary level. But where could they go? It is hard to believe that the Liberal Democrats are in a fit state to regain their credibility rapidly, the Greens would need to start with a leader who actually made some sense, UKIP’s star is in decline and anyway many Labour voters would not dream of going that far and a direct switch to the Conservatives, perhaps the most likely option, has already largely been ‘banked’ by the Tories in their 2015 result. Do we see another new Party emerge, an SDP Mark 2? That didn’t really end so well.

We have in effect one out and out Blairite, two Ed Milibands (one with a working class accent, one female and neither as embarrassing if we are to be fair but still hardly a break from the recent failed past in England or Scotland) and a genuine visionary. The vision is bordering on frightening, as a look back say at housing policies in left wing authorities like Haringey (where Corbyn was a Councillor) or indeed Labour Wandsworth of the 1970s shows. But it may be that Corbyn is in a better position to increase Labour’s share of the vote, if not to make them electable, than any of his rivals. The cost may be ‘permanently’ (that tends to mean ‘for two elections’ in politics) to lose the ‘middle ground’ which is often, though not always, the space from which successful election campaigns are fought.

Even saying this makes me feel a bit silly. Every one of these factors, each unlikely in itself, would have to be fulfilled for Corbyn to move forward. Much more likely that his Islington trendiness will lose Labour more traction with the industrial working class in the North, perhaps to ULIP’s advantage, perhaps even to the Conservatives’.

But although Labour will never dominate politics in the way the Conservatives do, it is important for democracy to have an Opposition which is both credible in its attacks and which occasionally gets into power. The predominant party needs space to recharge and the rest of us need space to remember that life is not just about the money and that using our wealth to support the less fortunate is important as well. (Of course many Conservatives recognise that but over the last few decades, especially in Wandsworth, there has been something of a sense of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing which overlays the absolutely vital focus on getting the economy right.) It is actually a much more complex question than first appear as to which of the Labour leadership crop is in the best place to provide it.