Miliband's new energy policy could be a vote winner

A greener and cheaper approach would have significant appeal.

A Hackgate-galvanised Ed Miliband has picked a new Goliath to aim his slingshot at. In a little-noticed newspaper interview, the Labour leader pledged to demolish the Big Six energy suppliers' control of the domestic electricity and gas market: "Six energy companies control 99.9 per cent of the consumer market. This cannot be right and we must take action to open up the market over the coming months," he said. Household bills will fall as result, he claimed.

The phone-hacking scandal has provided Team Miliband with some traction. His story of the powerful-versus-the-powerless is gaining momentum. Attacking what he sees as the unfettered interests of the over-powerful started with banks, and flourished with newspaper proprietors. The energy companies are now firmly in his sights.

It was a carefully-chosen political target. A recent poll by Populus found that 63 per cent of 2,000 respondents were "very concerned" about rising gas and electricity prices. The issue is nearly twice as important to the British public as the state of the NHS, unemployment rates and public sector cuts, which have all received far greater media attention. Miliband, reacting quickly to recent energy price rises, has grabbed a topic that wouldn't normally attract attention until the autumn, when the weather turns colder.

In his zeal to keep bills down, Labour's leader must not ignore the cost of green policies in higher energy prices. Currently climate policies add around 14 per cent on to household electricity prices (and 4 per cent on gas prices), according to government figures. By 2020, policies will increase electricity prices by more than 30 per cent. For businesses, the percentage rise is around 40 per cent.

This is tricky political territory for Miliband, who ran the Department for Energy and Climate Change before last year's election. However, his new focus on protecting people's pockets should lead to a fresh look at wasteful policies.

Top of the list should be the EU's 2020 Renewable Energy Directive, which needlessly commits the UK to meeting 15 per cent of its total energy needs from renewable sources by 2020. This move was driven by a desire for a catchy European green slogan rather than hard-headed economics. By forcing the UK to decarbonise by installing expensive offshore wind rather than cheaper alternatives like improving energy efficiency and more nuclear power, this sloganeering will cost UK bill-payers at least £12.5 billion. In addition, the Coalition's proposed overhaul of the electricity market will unpick a major public policy success of the last 30 years, and risks further unnecessary price rises. The confusing jumble of carbon prices that the current policy mish-mash has created should also be overhauled (Policy Exchange has called for the CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme to be scrapped as part of a much-needed tidy up and replaced with mandatory carbon reporting).

A clearer carbon price, backed by contracts, will ensure the cheapest possible emissions cuts are made first. At the same time, finding long-term, low carbon technologies that are cheaper than coal and gas requires a smarter focus on research and development.

Reaching carbon targets will increase household and business energy prices. Politicians must be up front about that. However, the government -- and Miliband -- should maintain an unrelenting focus on ensuring that any move to becoming greener is as done as cheaply as possible.

Guy Newey is a senior research fellow for environment and energy at Policy Exchange.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.