Jeremy Corbyn: How is the new Labour leader’s science record?
So, it’s official. After the most tediously drawn-out leadership campaign in political history (that’s coming from a massive politics nerd), what the bookies and newspapers already suspected has been confirmed. Jeremy Corbyn – once a 200/1 outsider – has been crowned Leader of the Labour Party, a position he never particularly wanted in the first place.
“Jeremy Corbyn – once a 200/1 outsider – has been crowned Leader of the Labour Party.”
It will be Corbyn, not Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall, who will be standing opposite David Cameron at the dispatch box for the next Prime Minister’s Questions in five days’ time, with a decidedly moody-looking party faking unity behind him. Corbyn is a serial rebel, having defied the Labour Party whip on more than 500 occasions. It will be interesting to see whether that loyalty is repaid by his new backers.
A lot has been written about the new Leader’s left-wing views and his electability, but not too much has been said about his views on science and technology. Labour, out of power since 2010, hasn’t always had an easy relationship with science, best summed up by
A lot has been written about the new Leader’s left-wing views and his electability, but not too much has been said about his views on science and technology. Labour, out of power since 2010, hasn’t always had an easy relationship with science, best summed up bytheir sacking of Dr David Nutt over his evidence-based call for relaxing of drug laws. How does Islington North’s MP stack up? I explored his 32-year voting record to find out.
First of all, unlike his brother Piers Corbyn, the new Labour leader does believe that humans are affecting the world’s climate. While The Independent describes Piers as believing that “humans have no role in climate change and that the Met Office, media and ‘corrupt scientists’ are ‘brainwashing’ the public as part of a Qatar-run conspiracy to keep oil prices high,” Jeremy has consistently voted in favour of measures to limit climate change and promote green energies. He also practices what he preaches – not only has he been a vegetarian for the past 46 years, but he cycles rather than drives and actually refused to do an interview in a car.
“He’s also come out against low-carbon nuclear power in the past, misleadingly conflating nuclear power plants with the production of nuclear weapons.”
This makes his stance on fossil fuels rather confusing. Corbyn has suggested re-opening some of the coal mines, if the price of coal made it financially viable to do so, while, in the same breath, speaking about a need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. He caveats this by saying that any mining should be carbon-neutral, but that’s quite a financial tall order. He’s also come out against low-carbon nuclear power in the past, misleadingly conflating nuclear power plants with the production of nuclear weapons, which he has consistently campaigned against. Hmm.
On the plus side, he’s serious about science funding, and addressing the gender imbalance in science and technology. In a statement to Scientists for Labour, Corbyn wrote: “The UK has produced some wonderful scientists and engineers – real innovators in their fields, but too often we do not have the supportive infrastructure to develop their ideas here.”
“As a country we also need to address the gender gap in STEM jobs. As I said in my women’s manifesto, ‘gender stereotyping means that too few girls go into science, technology, engineering and maths’. How much talent is left untapped because we don’t encourage young girls into these areas of study?”
“Corbyn even supported making 12 February a public holiday, in honour of Charles Darwin’s birthday.”
While anyone can say they support more funding for everything when trying to get elected, Corbyn can point to his parliamentary record here: he backed the ‘Science is Vital’ campaign opposing cuts to science, signing an EDM along with 139 other MPs (no Burnham, Cooper or Kendall in sight). He even supported making 12 February a public holiday, in honour of Charles Darwin’s birthday.
So far, a mixed bag – and there are plenty of these scientifically mixed positions: he backed stem cell research in 2000, but, like the SNP, has voted against genetically modified crops.
However, the real howler can be summed up by a single tweet: To be fair to Corbyn, he was one of 29 Labour MPs to sign the EDM in question, but notably none of his leadership rivals were amongst them. He also has form in this area, backing a 2007 EDM praising the contribution of NHS homeopathic hospitals.
“The new leader backed a 2007 EDM praising the contribution of NHS homeopathic hospitals.”
It’s hard to know quite where to start with this one, but the word “believe” and the phrase “organic matter” are especially troubling. As Sense About Science points out, there have been more than 150 clinical trials showing that homeopathy is no more effective than the placebo effect.
As Simon Oxenham wrote in a superb open letter to Corbyn about his beliefs: “‘Organic’ simply means something that is derived from living matter and produced without artificial chemicals. Firstly, conventional medicine is not necessarily organic. Secondly, due to the fact that homeopathic preparations don’t actually contain any active ingredient whatsoever, they are only organic in the same somewhat abstract sense that a glass of water is organic. Thirdly, whether or not a medicine is organic has precisely zero bearing on whether or not it is effective.”
On other health issues, he’s been somewhat ahead of his time. He was one of just seven MPs to back a smoking ban in 1989 – 17 years before one was eventually enforced – and one of 14 MPs to argue that cannabis should be decriminalised in 2000.
“He will consider evidence on issues carefully, and isn’t too proud to change his mind when the experts recommend it.”
How many of these positions will become official Labour policy remains to be seen – Corbyn has stated he’s keen to see policy dictated from the grassroots of the party rather than being a one-man band. I have also heard personal anecdotes from his constituents that suggest he will consider evidence on issues carefully, and isn’t too proud to change his mind when the experts recommend it (as he seems to have after initially backing an anti-video game EDM). Likewise, he was one of just 47 MPs in the Commons to vote against the poorly thought through and rushed Digital Economy Bill back in 2010.
That’s ultimately a really positive note to end on from a science perspective: if Corbyn follows the evidence and listens to advice, then there’s no reason to believe that the black marks on his record won’t be corrected in a coherent science policy – regardless of whether or not he ever enters Downing Street.
Images: Garry Knight, Gregg Knapp, David Holt and Global Justice Now used under Creative Commons.
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