Labour activists in Cumbria have pleaded with Jeremy Corbyn to strongly support nuclear power amid fears that the issue is the party’s ‘Achilles heel’ in the Copeland by-election.
The Labour leader was made aware of the concerns as he met local members during a trip to the Lakeland constituency on Sunday, HuffPost UK can reveal.
With 20,000 jobs relying on a planned new nuclear plant near Sellafield, both trade union members and activists raised fears that Corbyn’s personal anti-nuclear views could gift the Tories the tight marginal seat.
Corbyn made the 700-mile round trip by train to Whitehaven, the constituency’s main town, as the party geared up to select its candidate for the crunch contest.
But unlike deputy leader Tom Watson and a raft of Shadow Cabinet ministers, he didn’t meet the public or go canvassing on the doorstep.
Labour is facing a difficult by-election in Copeland after MP Jamie Reed decided to quit to work at the nearby Sellafield nuclear decommissioning and waste centre.
The Tories lost by just 2,500 votes in the 2015 general election and are putting up a strong challenge, flooding the seat with activists and leaflets seizing on Corbyn’s remarks about nuclear power.
In a sign of the importance of the by-election, the leader visited the constituency and met all three women shortlisted ahead of the final selection meeting on Thursday.
Community campaigner Rachel Holliday, who is backed by leftwing group Momentum and key members of trade union Unite, is up against former doctor Gill Troughton and fellow councillor Barbara Cannon.
But members of the GMB union, which represents the majority of workers at the Sellafield plant, are “furious” that neither former MP Thomas Doherty nor Sellafield official Tim Knowles were included on the shortlist.
Some of the GMB are threatening not to support Holliday and may even refuse to mobilise their Sellafield members in the by-election.
Corbyn decided not to stage any public events, but in the private meeting the significance of nuclear policy was made clear.
“One of the things you can do is say clearly that Labour policy is pro-nuclear,” one of those present told him, pointing to the importance of backing a new generation power plant at the Moorside site.
“He nodded and said ‘Yes, I understand’,” one party source told HuffPost.
Cumbria County Councillor Mike Hawkins, who is backing Troughton for the selection, said an unequivocal statement from Corbyn backing Moorside would prove invaluable.
“That would be a big help here. It’s the only thing the Tories have got, the perception that Labour is anti-nuclear, which it certainly isn’t.”
Labour hopes that the by-election, a date for which has not yet been set, will be dominated more by the NHS crisis, with a local hospital threatened with a downgrade of its maternity and A&E unit.
Hawkins, who said that it had been a “really good, positive meeting” with Corbyn, said that the Tory leaflet had certainly been noticed on the doorstep. “I’ve been pointing out to people that it’s just complete lies to say we are against nuclear.”
The Conservatives have seized on quotes from Corbyn in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, when he said: “I say no nuclear power, decommission the stations we’ve got”.
Since he became Labour leader, Corbyn has been accused of being unclear about the party policy, which is to agree new nuclear sites that meet value for money tests. Party insiders say that he finally supported the new plant at Hinkley Point only after GMB and Unite pressure.
On the Andrew Marr Show, the Labour leader appeared to back the Moorside development for the first time.
“I want to make sure there’s an energy mix in this country. We have to first of all make sure there is sufficient energy supplies and there has to be an energy platform. So what happens in Moorfield [he meant Moorside] is pretty key to ensuring that actually happens,” he said.
But when he appeared later on BBC Sunday Politics Look North, he refused to say if he would approve the plans if he became Prime Minister.
Asked directly if he would approve the plans he replied: “I don’t know what the circumstances will be at that time. I want to see...”
Pressed further, he said: “Let’s look at the issue when it comes up.”
Conservative MP for Carlisle, John Stevenson, said: “The fact that Labour had to sneak Jeremy Corbyn into Copeland shows just how toxic their leader is.
“Only the Conservatives can be trusted to deliver the vital investment in nuclear power, which means more jobs and better services for local people in Copeland.”
A Labour MP told HuffPost: “He was in Copeland? Come or don’t come, don’t come in secret! It will give rocket boosters to the sense that he knows he is sabotaging the campaign with his personal musings on civil nuclear [power].”
A spokesman for the Labour leader said: “Jeremy Corbyn visited Copeland to attend a discussion session with local Labour Party members, as part of a series of similar meetings across the country.
“It was an opportunity for Jeremy to talk to local people and hear first-hand the key national and local issues in the area such as the Tory proposals to cut NHS services in Cumbria, the nuclear industry, Brexit and immigration.”
Corbyn allies say that he is keen to make repeated trips to Copeland once the by-election gets underway properly.
Holliday, who backed Corbyn in the leadership race and is seen as the favourite for the Labour nomination, was voted Cumbria Woman of the Year 2015 for her work in founding a new hostel for homeless ex-servicemen.
Allies of Jeremy Corbyn have been impressed with her campaigns to save services at the West Cumberland Hospital, as well as her strong support for train unions such as the TSSA.
But some activists point out that she has no record of attending Labour party branch meetings, canvassing and only joined the party since 2015.
Some local party members are as furious as GMB members at the shortlisting process that took place last week.
The three NEC members who drafted the list were Christine Shawcroft, who was announced as Director of Momentum on the day of the shortlisting, Unite’s Jennie Formby and Shadow International Development Secretary Kate Osamor.
Labour is also facing a by-election in Stoke-on-Trent Central after the resignation of former Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt.
Corbyn told the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party on Monday that he was “confident” of holding on to both seats, though he accepted there would be a “serious contest” in both.
On Copeland, he told MPs that “Labour is committed to mixed energy and to continued nuclear power.”
Asked directly about the Moorside plans, a party spokesman speaking after the PLP insisted on a nuanced position: “The particular proposals will need to be scrutinised, but Labour is committed to new nuclear power capacity as part of the overall energy mix. It’s the only way that the climate change targets can be achieved.”
The spokesman revealed that Corbyn would head to Cumbria for public events once the new candidate was chosen.
Put to him the Tory charge that the Labour leader knew he was ‘toxic’, the spokesman replied: “Absolute nonsense. He’s going back to Copeland this coming weekend and you’ll see very clearly that’s not the case.”