Sunday, 9 October 2016

Why I was right to predict that UKIP would become the largest party

Some time before the EU referendum I predicted that a 'leave' vote would make UKIP the largest party. Well, I am very sad to admit that I was absolutely right. It's just that the Conservative Party has morphed into UKIP-lite.

My argument ran that as it became obvious that the UK could not simultaneously remain in the EU's Single Market for economic purposes and have solely British control over immigration rules then support would shift to UKIP and the Tories would split. What has happened is that the Government has stolen UKIP's clothes and is heading for chauvinism and economic isolation. There's a joke being made to Americans now. Why not come over and buy some property here? You'll get a nice house and change from $100!

The proposed rules about companies saying how many 'foreigners' are employed is a measure bound to inflame prejudice and threaten the livelihoods of people who have settled here in good faith. It is being reviled around the world as a sign of how the last country in Europe to embrace xenophobia in the 20 the century has taken the lead in this ignoble pursuit in the 21st century.

But perhaps the most ludicrous action of all in this package of petty chauvinism announced at the Tory Conference are the proposals to limit 'foreign' students. Apparently Amber Rudd is considering proposals so that overseas students will only be able to obtain work visas if they study at some universities, rather than 'lower quality' courses. According to one of her advisers quality will be measured by whether the universities are one of the two dozen members of the Russell Group of universities.

This proposal would do little, if anything to reduce overseas student numbers as the Russell Group universities would simply expand the intake to recruit the students who would have gone to non-Russell Group universities before. Meanwhile it would do severe financial damage to the rest. It would be an incredible piece of policy nonsense given that recently the Government proposed to ruin the top universities by linking home student fee rises to how well the universities scored in the National Student Survey (NSS) (see previous blog on why this is nonsense). That would mainly favour the non-research intensive universities who tend to do better in NSS scores.

I struggle to understand how it is that a Programme we run at Aberdeen University (or at places like the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex, Robert Gordon University also in Aberdeen etc) is 'lower quality' to one organised at a university in the Russell Group. But it is now. Because Amber Rudd says so. They'll be no NSS on that one I'm sure!

Of course if Amber Rudd fails to divide and rule the universities she may use the option of simply stopping overseas students getting work visas at all. But if this leads to large cuts in income from overseas students then then that would even more surely ruin the universities more thoroughly than will happen anyway with the loss of EU research income and the decline in numbers of EU students studying in the UK.

There's no good argument for doing this, bar the notion that this may nominally cut the numbers of so-called immigrants (students are counted in this list). It is ludicrous to claim that the students I teach at my and other universities are low skilled people, presumably who will put out British people out of jobs picking fruit or cleaning toilets. No they might compete with university lecturers for their jobs of course - but I can assure you that very, very, few of us mind about that!

But facts and expert opinion have departed from being regarded as having any relevance in UKIP Britain. Experts are weak liberal internationalists who have no country.  The Prime Minister has sacrificed her country in the race to save her Party by transforming it into UKIP.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Social Science research boosted by right-wing Tory ex-Minister

Peter Lilley, the ex-Tory cabinet minister, gave an unexpected boost to social science research when he implied that social science research was needed to estimate the impact of an administrative change he brought in when he was a minister in the 1990s. But what this (surprising?) boost does illustrate is that there is some hope to defend social science research from what I hear as the increasing howls of 'what's the point of all this' that I hear these days. This is especially strong after the EU referendum and the Brexiteer sneering at 'experts'.

Peter Lilley, in a Radio 4 Programme (broadcast earlier today) was actually discussing whether civil servants, in preparing lists of policy options, should include an option 'of doing nothing'. When asked whether this had led to long term changes in how policies are assessed he responded 'that's something for social science research to determine'! So get your ESRC applications in now, folks (although jolly good luck, because these days only about one in ten or so of proposals get funded!).

This boost was a little unexpected partly because the intensity of dismissal of social science research has strengthened in the wake of the EU referendum, with social scientists being attacked as being 'shamen' in one memorable attack from a right wing opinion leader that I can remember. It's nice to have somebody on the political right who thinks it is sometimes useful.
Of course lots of people say that we social scientists should just focus on teaching.  Now we have to do this of course, as well as research, but what all those wailing at us for spending so much time on research fail to answer is that when we do put a lot of effort into teaching:

Where exactly do we get the material to teach from?

I ask this question when people tackle me on the way that (so they say) academics 'waste' time on doing research when they could be helping students. and I must say that the responses seem pretty thin. People seem to simply ignore the point I make, or refer to some 'body of knowledge' out there which we can use. But where on earth do people think this 'body of knowledge' comes from? The Guardian, or Times perhaps? Well, they in fact tend to either recycle un-evidenced opinion or, wait for it, research published by academics. Or perhaps the Daily Mail? I won't comment in that one. Besides providing students with material to discuss and learn, social science research can answer a lot of questions that the people want to know about (including Peter Lilley it seems).

The Government have got very confused about all of this in their proposals for a 'Teaching Excellence Framework'. Initially at least, they seemed to be moving towards a proposal whereby the universities that did best in the national student satisfaction surveys league tables were allowed to increase their fees. Which seems ok at first sight until you understand that, as a very general rule, the universities that students most want to get into (ie research intensive universities) happen to be the ones that tend to come often towards the bottom of the 'teaching satisfaction' league tables. So would they be starved of funds and forced to sack the boffins?

So what does the Government want to do? Destroy places like Imperial College, and the LSE that don't do well enough in student satisfaction surveys but who generate very high quality research as represented by international league tables? Despite the fact that students want to get into these sorts of places most of all!  Of course, as we can see in Scotland, which boasts lots of top-rated universities (eg Edinburgh and Aberdeen, and others), a fees system is not necessary for UK students.

But maybe the universities should not expect too much help from the Government. After all they are tainted with the liberal internationalism that is so hated now by Brexit Britain.

There is an irony that, unintentionally, the Brexiteers, by bringing down the value of the pound, have made studying in Britain a lot more attractive for overseas students. This might go some way to replacing the loss of EU funds for research if it leads to increased numbers of students coming in from abroad. But I suspect Theresa May will order her ministers come up with some 'options' to put a stop to that sort of comeback!
Of course doing nothing to limit overseas students numbers would be one option that the universities would favour! But will a 'doing nothing' option be on the cabinet committee agenda?
By the way, if you want to join in (or just look at) the 'Energy Politics' facebook group at the University of Aberdeen go to

Monday, 26 September 2016

Ofgem action against small generators threatens to destabilise capacity market

In pursuit of a complete failure to understand the problems with its own 'capacity market' Ofgem seems about to make things a whole lot worse by reducing capacity margins - by taking away the incentives to a lot of small scale generators whose existence helps to keep the electricity sector running.

Ofgem runs on a piece of fantasy theory that the capacity market will work better if the 'distorting' benefits to so-called 'embedded;' generators are taken away. In fact the opposite it the case. Ofgem's concern that proposed big gas power stations cannot win bids at sufficiently low prices to put them into business partly because of the small generators is total nonsense. Without the small generators the price at which the required capacity will be supplied by the big power stations will increase not fall. The problem has to do with the principles and practice of the capacity market, and has nothing to do with the small generators who currently provide a valuable service. Ofgem's actions  are akin to destroying a table leg in order to save the table.

The central problem is that future prices for electricity that the power stations could sell on the wholesale power markets are very uncertain, and quite likely to fall. Given this it will require very high capacity market prices (which will put consumer energy bills up by large amounts) to evince the capacity that Ofgem wants from gas fired power stations.

A big part of the problem of course is that increasing parts of electricity supply are being paid for outside of the wholesale power markets, through the Renewables Obligation or contracts for difference. This will only increase in the future, especially if Hinkley C comes on line (whenever that may be). Note: this has nothing to do with so-called renewables 'intermittency' , it is to do with 'liquidity' being siphoned away from the wholeslae power markets to pay for low carbon energy sources - which has to be done of course, otherwise they will not come on line.

The answer to all of this is to offer new generators firm long term contracts so that they can have income guarantees in the future - this may involve some sort of 'take or pay' scheme for all generators at least, in the form of a contracts for difference arrangement as applied to the generators.   - But this approach is bound to end up being a lot cheaper than the Government's current approach which consists on the one hand of giving the capacity payments to every generator and on the other hand (in these proposals) of driving the small generators out of business by taking away the income they need to provide capacity to the whole of the system.

The problem has a lot to do with ideology. Ofgem and civil servants seriously believe that somehow in a world of decarbonisation you can run wholesale power markets according to some imaginary free market trading arrangement. People must learn to be more pragmatic and tear themselves away from economic models that have little bearing on the real world.
For the story on Ofgem's proposals see

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

All green energy supporters should shun the Tories and join a Progressive Alliance

The Green Party and Jonathon Porritt have been organising campaigns to unite people to form a 'Progressive Alliance' that would co-ordinate efforts to defeat the Conservatives. There is hardly an area for which this is not more necessary than green energy. That means renewable energy and energy conservation.

Tories who oppose support for renewable energy are getting their way despite the fact that green energy is much more popular than nuclear power or fracking which is their preferred means of deriving energy. This is despite the fact that both of these options are much more difficult to deliver compared to renewables or energy efficiency.

Behind the spectacle of Hinkley C Point being, in reality, postponed again (until at least 2026) because of the inability of the nuclear industry to deliver, the Government refuses to offer contracts to several thousand MW of onshore wind that are in the planning system, or solar farms that could be quickly put together. It has postponed the issuing of contracts for new offshore windfarms. Targets for zero net energy housing have been abandoned. Local authorities have been stripped of their powers to make developers build buildings to a higher energy efficiency standard than the minimum requirements. As the UK leaves the EU the right wing will be straining at the leash to cut down the environmental protection rules, including EU inspired energy efficiency standards for machines and buildings. I could go on.......

All the Government seems likely to do now is to oversee the ramping up of incentives for fossil fuel power plant under the capacity mechanism and think of crazy schemes to fund nuclear power through back-door blank cheques.

Of course the predominantly anti-green Brexiteers hold green energy to ransom. Despite the fact that green energy is very popular the anti-green faction hides behind a front of xenophobia to push through policies that the public really does not want. It's classic right wing politics of course.

So it seems nothing will change until we get rid of the Tories. Divided the centre and left will fall. Together we can win.

See Jonathan Porrit's blog for some general further thoughts:

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

‘The newest windfarm in Aberdeenshire – a good omen for renewable energy?’

‘The newest windfarm in Aberdeenshire – a good omen for renewable energy?’
Roger McMichael from the company ENGIE who are building the Cairnborrow windfarm in north west Aberdeenshire will be coming along to talk on Friday September 16th at noon in room New Kings (NK) 3 at the Kings College, University of Aberdeen. He will talk about renewable energy policy as well as the windfarm that is currently under construction. You can see some details of the windfarm at…/work-begins-on-10mw-cai…/
You can see the position of New Kings Building at:
All are invited to this meeting.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

EDF leaders get desperate over Hinkley C

EDF leaders are now in such a state of panic over their Hinkley C proposals that desperate messages were being sent out to tell the British Government that they need to take a £6 billion equity share in the proposal. Signals are coming from Downing Street that the Government wants to decouple Hinkley C from the 'deal' with China allowing them to build their own nuclear power plant at Bradwell. The Chinese have responded that they would no longer be interested in funding their (approx one third) share of Hinkley C.

A Chinese response of withdrawing from the Hinkley C deal would be entirely logical from their point of view since the only point of taking a huge risk of funding Hinkley C would be the possibility (in their imagination at least) of opening up a western market for their own nuclear power stations. The 'deal' with China was always a bizarre arrangement compared to the normalities of building power plant and really reflects earlier desperate attempts by EDF and some pro-nuclear allies in the UK to prop up what had become, by 2012, a project of increasingly dubious commercial realities.

I know that some people still occasionally produce projections that on the basis of the now notorious 35 year contract to pay EDF £92.5 per MWh in 2012 prices (now worth about £97 per MWh) EDF can still make a profit on a rate of return of around 7 per cent. But, and this is a VERY important 'But' without a) the ability to finance the bulk of this from bank loans as opposed to equity capital which needs to be serviced by much higher returns and b) any reasonable certainty that the project would be delivered relatively close to projected cost and timescale, then the scheme is something that no sane boardroom in the private sector could possibly ever contemplate taking on.

The Treasury has quietly edged away from offering the sort of guarantees that would have allowed EDF to take out bank loans to finance the deal - fearing quite rightly that the guarantees would most likely be transformed in the fullness of time to a state funded blank cheque. Meanwhile the construction disasters for the Hinkley-style EPR models in Finland and France have  made the achievement of cost and timescale delivery projections look like, as they say these days, a 'heroic' ambition.

So it is no surprise that there would be no private sector takers for the Hinkley C investment. Centrica withdrew their plans to invest in Hinkley C in 2012, and remember that the previous year the other privately owned big electricity companies had walked away from the British nuclear programme. But a foreign Government with their own techno-political agenda, China, then decided, in effect that Hinkley C might act as a 'loss leader' for their ambitions to be major nuclear exporters. I think this hope is much misplaced and that China should stick to exporting the solar panels, but I shall reserve that story for another time.

Of course if one country has a political agenda in investing in another, then it is hardly a surprise if the host country (in this case the UK) considers its own political agenda, as we read in the papers. But the point here is that this issue (China's involvement) only arises simply because the Hinkley deal is commercially inferior to the various other clean energy options that the UK has at its disposal, none of which will have any major problems in delivery or financing. The only problem here is that the Government does not want to offer any long term contracts for them - and is even (now) delaying offering contracts for some more offshore windfarms.

People can often be heard to say that nuclear power is needed to provide energy security. Yet what is remotely secure about the technology which you don't know whether or when it will be delivered? Indeed, this produces the opposite - insecurity!

EDF's desperate plea that the British Government take over the Chinese share in Hinkley C is unlikely to be welcomed by Treasury officials who would (or at least should) see that as tantamout to locking in the British state to shovelling money down a black hole, with a lot more inevitably following the first £6 billion equity.

See FT report:

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Labour 's 'choose a policy' approach to nuclear power looks like chaos

With Labour trying to face several ways at once it looks more like chaos as the front bench tries to please everybody and fails to satisfy anybody at the same time.

Jeremy Corbyn is quoted (quite rightly in my view) as saying that 'Tories have just put up the cost of your electricity by giving a blank cheque to EDF for a power station that doesn’t work' See:

On the other hand, Labour's energy spokesperson Barry Gardiner is said to be in favour of the Hinkley C power station but at a lower cost to the consumer. See Ian Fairlie's piece at:

How to reconcile these two views? Well, you could say that Labour wants to pay a slightly lower price for a power station 'that doesn't work'. Alternatively, you can just choose the particular policy that comes closest to your particular taste. That's one way of running a political party I suppose, though even (nay, I say, ESPECIALLY) the Green Party has somewhat more coherent policy responses than Labour!

As for the trade unions, well that depends on whether you are a French union or a British one. The British trade union position is that it's ok if somebody else pays for Hinkley C, and of course the French unions are opposing the deal because they know that they will end up paying a lot of money (and jobs) for it!

Of course, as Ian Fairlie argues, there's plenty of jobs in alternative clean energy sources to Hinkley. One estwhile Momentum supporter has attacked Corbyn as being an 'anarchist' for his position on Hinkley. Well, I'd more see the Labour position as being much closer to chaos! There's a big difference!