The General Election: What Does Labour Think About Science?


When he isn’t busy starring in Harry Potter fanfiction, Ed Miliband is the leader of the Labour Party.

Labour has been critical of the Conservatives over scientific and environmental issues, but would a Labour led government fare any better? (Policies here, here and here)

Budget and General Observations:

Labour plans to return to the 2004-2014 investment scheme under the last Labour government. Labour claims this doubled science investment (not if you measure by GDP), and provided stable funding (not if you’re the 2009 Science and Technology Council).

Although the budget is ring fenced against inflation, with private sector research subsidised through tax credits, any hope of seeing a reverse to continued scientific underfunding won't be found here.

Labour has made other science plans more explicit. It would increase international collaboration with nations like China and India; while excluding International students from migration targets (like the Lib Dems).

Labour wants to encourage more women, BME groups, and state educated kids into science and engineering (through reinstating Educational Maintenance).

They would also address the shortage of UK STEM graduate jobs through boosting apprenticeship numbers.

Climate Change:

Climate change is a prominent feature in the Labour manifesto, adding to their decent environmental record. Labour introduced the Climate Change Act (put forward by Miliband), and commitments to zero carbon homes by 2016.

Labour's policies for the next Parliament are in step with the IPCC's recommendations of zero emissions by 2050. Beyond strengthening UK flood defences, Labour are pushing for targets in line with the IPCC’s, and appointed Prescott (who played a lead role in the Kyoto Protocol) as a senior climate advisor.

It would give the Green Investment Bank borrowing and lending powers (ones it will gain anyway) to develop green jobs; although to achieve one million green jobs the majority of investment will have to come from overseas and emerging private sector companies.

There's also a strong focus on international development in tackling climate change through aid and technology sharing. As the image below demonstrates, emerging economies can burn some of their fossil fuel reserves, but the majority of their energy must come from renewable sources. It should be pointed out, mind, that the vast majority of fossil fuel scale backs will have to come from Europe, the US, and China to have any chance of staying in the 2 degree limit.


Source: World Energy Outlook, 2014. Graphic by Carbon Brief.

Energy: Labour's plans for energy decarbonisation by 2030 are good, but not new. It would have passed in this Parliament if the Tories and Lib Dems hadn't shot down the legislation. Labour doesn't outline exactly how it'd achieve this, but it goes beyond that of the Climate Change Act, and is an ambitious policy in of itself.

For near term, Labour's energy policy consists of low carbon systems like fracking and nuclear. If they're serious about their 2030 decarbonising target, then fracking isn't the right way to go about it.

Going on Labour's amendments to the Infrastructure Act, fracking would occur with strict regulations in line with the Environmental Audit Committee, and no fracking in national parks or areas of scientific interest.

However there is also a clause in the bill that says the Energy Secretary must listen to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) to see if fracking is compatible with the UK's Carbon Budgets. They’ve argued in the past that fracking is usable if the regulation is strict, and CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) technology is implemented alongside it.

But the fracking window is closing. Only 3% of UK Bowland shale can be burnt under current carbon budgets, and this rises to just 6% with CCS.

If the CCC says shale isn't in line with UK carbon budgets, then a Labour Energy Secretary would have to find another source of energy.

Public Health and Pharmaceutical Regulation:

Labour plans to tackle obesity by setting maximum permitted levels of sugar, salt and fat in food marketed to children.

This is different to a fat tax or sugar tax. Fat taxes lack clear cut evidence, Restricting sugar and fat levels for foods, similar to New York's soda ban, can be equally ineffective.

Labour's also advocated for the introduction in a tobacco levy to discourage smoking, but none of the money will go to local councils to help fund their prevention techniques, and there wasn't any mention in the role and regulation of e-cigarettes in tobacco policy. Physical activity is a strong feature of Labour's public health policy, but again, detail is lacking.

Labour's made no mention of reinstating the sub-committee on Public Health either. Andrew Lansley (Conservative Health Minister) was criticised when the committee was cut.

In Pharmaceutical circles, Labour was instrumental in leading and amending an EU bill to increase clinical transparency in trials. Despite growing pressure to publish missing and abandoned trials, Labour makes very little mention of it in its manifesto.

Farming and GMs:

Labour, like the Conservatives, have come out in favour of using GM crops in agriculture. Labour also pushed for changes in EU laws regarding GMOs following a comprehensive review into their safety and environmental impact.

Conclusion: Labour follows a similar party line to the Conservatives in holding science funding steady, albeit with more long term-ism. However, we won't see any reverse in UK science under-funding.

Labour's public health policy lacks details and it's unclear how effective it will be. While their pharmaceutical regulations could be tougher, Labour MEP Glenis Willmott deserves a gold star for proposing and pushing for increased clinical trial transparency.

Labour has a more ambitious commitment to tackling climate change (both at home and abroad) and decarbonising energy. However the policy lacks detail, and their commitment to fracking on some level raises questions about how ready they are to commit to the targets.

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