A few reflections on the Labour leadership Newsnight debate

Ed Miliband really wants the job.

I have been late to the party when it comes to last night's BBC Newsnight debate with the Labour leadership candidates, about which much has already been said, including on this blog.

So I'll stick to a few quick thoughts, ignoring questions of format and sticking instead to some of the comments made by candidates.

One of the most striking elements of the debate was the behaviour of Ed Miliband, who left no doubt at all that he is fighting, hard, to beat his own brother and win this contest. He said he wanted to be "prime minister" in his introduction and repeatedly attempted to interrupt David Miliband, on one occasion saying that Labour's fortunes were down to "more fundamental" issues than those which were being discussed. He seemed to have had a haircut, wore a smart pink tie, and peered straight into the camera, Nick Clegg-style, as much as he could.

David Miliband, perhaps the most consistently impressive candidate in the hustings, seemed a tiny bit subdued; perhaps he was simply given less airtime. But his pitch at the start, in which he outlined what is "real about me", was highly effective, as was his invoking the memory of Tony Crosland at the end.

The first question was about Gordon Brown, and it was striking that Ed Balls, supposedly the former prime minister's most loyal ally, was the most condemnatory, accusing him of having been proved "out of touch" in his encounter with Gillian Duffy. Both David Miliband, who critics assume was somehow disloyal to Brown, and Ed Miliband said it would be a "grave error" to blame Labour's election defeat on one moment of the campaign.

David Miliband said he didn't stand in 2007 "because I was not ready to be prime minister", but that "changing the leader" would not have been enough. The problems for the party, he said, went back to 2006, after which there wasn't a root-and-branch change of approach. He also pointedly hit out at "negative briefing".

Diane Abbott, for her part, tried to portray herself as "the people's candidate" as opposed to the "Westminster insider's candidate", but then emphasised that she had been in the Commons longer than anyone else on the platform, and knew Westminster well as a result.

Andy Burnham repeated his outsider pitch, and made a direct appeal to the unions, but the point of his candidacy may have still appeared a little unclear to the party if not the viewing public.

Depressingly, there was once again much discussion of immigration, with Burnham and Balls taking a tough line and the Milibands, while accepting it was "an issue on the doorstep", emphasising the "underlying issues" of housing and jobs. Abbott rightly said it would be a grave error to blame Labour's defeat on that issue.

But it was Ed Miliband who made the most controversial pitch, saying: "I don't see a contradiction between standing up for values and winning an election, because you can't have victory without values". Other candidates, including his brother David, may feel they too have values. But Ed is determined to portray himself as the "credible change candidate".

In this unpredictable leadership election, it remains to be seen whether he will overtake his authoritative brother.

Watch this space for my feature in this week's magazine on the background to David and Ed Miliband's fight for the leadership.

 

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.


Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off the  relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarms, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon those made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.