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

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.