With or without Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze, the lights could soon start going out

The recent summary of the United Nations report on climate change, published on 27 September, only re-emphasised the urgency of the world taking action on emissions.

Ed Miliband’s pledge to freeze gas and electricity prices was hailed by his supporters as a masterstroke that cuts to the heart of the most important issue in post-crisis Britain: stagnant household incomes in the face of rapidly rising prices. His opponents called it a lurch to the far left that revives a brand of economic interventionism not seen since the 1970s. With any luck, it will at least encourage politicians of all parties to take a closer look at Britain’s overall energy policy.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Britain was in the midst of a postwar economic boom. The economy grew at 3 per cent a year on average and electricity demand at more than double that rate. It was the heyday of technocratic planning and no serious person believed that such rapid growth in demand could possibly be met by the uncoordinated private sector. By the 1970s, therefore, the supply of energy in Britain was controlled directly by the state from top to bottom. The government planned investment, provided finance and set prices; its plan was implemented by state-owned monopoly utilities.
At the beginning of the 1980s, however, this conventional wisdom regarding the optimal way of organising the energy industry underwent a big change. The primary reason was the general shift in economic ideology. In 1978, one of the leading British proponents of Austrian economics, Stephen C Littlechild, published a pamphlet, The Fallacy of the Mixed Economy, which became the classic statement of the economic case for privatisation and market liberalisation.
A planned economy, Littlechild warned, assumes extraordinary powers on the part of the planners. For planning or the planned part of a mixed economy to be efficient, the planners would have to know what people want, what technologies are available to meet their demands and where the resources are to deploy them. In reality, it is difficult for planners to discover the second and third of these and logically impossible to know the first.
Fortunately, he explained, society has devised an ingenious solution to this canonical informational problem in the form of the market: a magic machine for discovering consumers’ demands and the most efficient way of meeting them, in which no individual needs to know much at all.
A market economy might be organisationally more messy – in other words, requiring many competing firms instead of just one – but in terms of its informational requirements, it would be infinitely simpler (and therefore more efficient) than the existing planned system.
There were changes afoot in the UK economy that made the energy sector especially fertile ground for this new philosophy. The golden age of growth was over and the economy was busily moving from one based on energy-intensive manufacturing to the dominance of the service sector we know today. As a result, rapid growth in demand was no longer the problem. In 1970, it was predicted that Britain would require 100GW of generating capacity in 1995. In the event, only a little over half of that was needed.
Instead, the main challenge was how to improve the efficiency of the existing system. So, in energy more than almost any other sector, the trade-off from moving to a market system seemed to promise extraordinary economic gains.
The increase in organisational complexity as the nationalised behemoths were dismantled into their constituent parts and new institutions were created to regulate and operate the new energy markets would offset the far greater efficiency of resourcing, operations and investment guided by the decentralised decisions of market participants. It all took a while, but in 1998 the last vestiges of the old monopoly utilities were abolished with the introduction of competition in the retail supply of electricity and gas.
However, because of global warming and the new requirements of the post-Kyoto world, mitigating carbon-dioxide emissions was fast becoming the dominant challenge. As the decline of the UK’s indigenous natural gas fields came into prospect, ensuring security of supply and managing the energy sector’s impact on the balance of payments also became important concerns.
There was no reason in theory why the liberalised market alone was going to achieve these objectives automatically – and no evidence in practice that it would. It seemed that planning by the state would be required after all.
Yet successive Labour governments and the current coalition opted instead for an incremental approach: a persistent accumulation of directives, rules and subsidy schemes intended to cure the liberalised markets’ intrinsic indifference to decarbonisation and security of supply, all programmed and overseen by a growing army of regulatory bodies, quangos and advisory institutions.
So we have ended up with the worst result from both worlds: a Byzantine industrial structure theoretically co-ordinated by the market mechanism, but one that nevertheless requires omniscient policymakers to mastermind everything it does.
This situation is not sustainable. With or without a price freeze, we face the distinct possibility of a capacity shortage – that’s “the lights going out” to you or me – by the middle of this decade; and the recent summary of the United Nations report on climate change, published on 27 September, only reemphasised the urgency of the world taking action on emissions.
Do our politicians still believe in the model of a liberalised energy sector? If they do, then policy and regulation need to be simplified drastically. If they do not, they might as well give up and return to old-school state direction. An energy policy marooned in noman’s- land is not an option.
Felix Martin is the author of “Money: the Unauthorised Biography” (Bodley Head, £20). His column appears fortnightly
We are facing the distinct possibility of a capacity shortage, or "the lights going out". Image: Getty

Macroeconomist, bond trader and author of Money

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide