Ed Miliband's critics think his energy pledge will make the lights go out. They are wrong

The energy companies are squealing over the Labour leader's proposed freeze on energy prices, warning of blackouts. They ignore the fact that the lights are already going out - for the 4.5 million people living in fuel poverty.

Ed Miliband’s pledge yesterday, to freeze energy prices until 2017 while reforming the market, appears to have plucked a rather sensitive chord. The reaction is, to a large extent, par for the course. Nobody truly expected the energy industry or right-wing press to welcome these developments. The knee-jerk reaction has been predictably swift and forceful. In my years working for a regulator, I can scarcely remember an industry representative faced with any kind of intervention who has not claimed that this would immediately bring about the end of their industry and civilisation as we know it.

The initial reaction from commentators was that Miliband has proven he does not understand how free markets work, followed by a number of irrelevant comparisons with inappropriate markets. All this has served to prove, is that the commentators in question don’t understand how a free market works or, indeed, what one looks like.

Energy supply in the UK is not just any market and it is as far away from a "free" market as one could get, skewed as it is by a long list of factors. Forgive the boring economic bit – I will attempt to make it as brief and simple as I can. Skip, if you must.

The market is an oligopoly (controlled by very few giant players). It is vertically integrated (the same companies which sell us energy at the retail level, largely sell it to themselves at wholesale level). There are significant barriers to entry (the costs and difficulty of setting up an energy company to compete are massive). There are asymmetries of information and barriers to switching at consumer level (because of a proliferation of tariffs, schemes and guarantees it is difficult to glean the cheapest supplier and, even if one does, switching is not easy). The aggregate retail market for energy is an essential commodity with very few realistic alternatives (it’s not like we could stop consuming the stuff or switch to burning government white papers for heat and light). In short, if an economics professor were trying to give an example of a market with the potential to be dysfunctional and require state regulation, energy would not be far from the top of the list.

Next, came the "poor energy companies making no money, really" defence. It was spearheaded by Angela Knight, the former Conservative MP who represented investment managers and stockbrokers during the decade of that industry’s worst excesses, was in charge of defending the British Bankers’ Association during the financial crisis, and assured the nation in 2008 that Libor was "a reliable benchmark". She made much of the fact that almost half of the energy retail price can be accounted for by the wholesale price, while dishonestly obscuring the fact that it is largely the very same companies that set and profit from the wholesale price.

Finally, the most desperate and starkest of warnings: "the lights will go out". What about the Californian energy shortages and blackouts, asked Andrew Neil on the Daily Politics? I don’t know whether this comparison was cynical or ill-informed. The “California Electricity Crisis” was not the result of regulation, but a process of deregulation which started in 2000-01. What is more, it has since been shown to have hinged on unlawful manipulation of supply by disgraced energy giant Enron. If ever there was a compelling example in favour of the tightest regulation of energy markets, it is this precise instance.

Centrica, a company which announced a near 10 per cent rise in its profit this year while simultaneously issuing a price rise warning, has threatened to quit the UK altogether over this perceived outrage. Other energy companies have made similar noises. And yet, “the big six” operate in a multitude of countries where degrees of price regulation, in many cases much harsher and more permanent than what is being proposed here, are in effect. As a matter of fact, only nine of the twenty-seven EU member states do not exercise some form of price regulation of energy retail prices, much to the chagrin of the European Commission.

One of the biggest players, Électricité de France or EDF to you and me, is owned by the French state and provides electricity to its French customers at heavily regulated and considerably lower prices than its British ones. Britain has one of the highest rates of energy inflation in both the EU and the OECD and has done for many years. Amid significant and evidenced allegations of "ripping off" and "market rigging" how can anyone support the notion that government just needs to step out of the way and let markets do their magic? Households today spend double the proportion of their income on energy bills than they did a mere eight years ago.

The counterargument, that energy companies will simply hike prices before the election, is naïve. Politically, they are pretty snookered. A hike before May 2015 would make this even more of an election issue – perhaps a transformative one. Helping install a Labour government is the very last thing these conglomerates would want right now. Not to mention that it may force Cameron into a similar pledge. The idea that they will put up prices immediately after the freeze is similarly misconceived; ignoring, as it does, that the reason for it is to facilitate deeper market reform by 2017.

At its heart, this hysteria over the Labour leader’s pledge betrays an evangelical belief in free markets self-correcting, whatever the cost; the very same misplaced faith which meant few predicted the global financial crisis. We continue to anthropomorphosise – markets are nervous, markets are jittery, markets are pleased, markets are calm – sacrificing figurative goats to appease volcanoes. Forgetting all the while, that these artificial constructs – markets, companies, banking, lending, money – were put in place to facilitate our existence, not the other way around. When they cease to enhance the lives of the vast majority, it is time to go back to the drawing board.

"The lights will go out," we are warned. The single pertinent fact, which seems to have escaped every single detractor, is that the lights are already going out for the 4.5 million households living in fuel poverty in the UK, right now. Reform is not only desirable, but absolutely essential.

 

Politicians are always trying to appease "the market" with figurative goats. Why?

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA