Regulation can't fix the energy industry

Let's stop pretending it can.

Last week's changes to the energy billing regulations, represent the biggest regulatory change experienced by the industry since privatisation. In fact, they are some of the biggest changes to any regulation, in any industry, and are all the more ground-breaking for directly affecting the way that energy companies sell their products to the consumer. At first glance , this was a simple case of victory for consumers over the corporate world, but the situation is more complex. After all, there's something inherently wrong with the idea of a predominantly consumer "victory" - the right balance of market forces and regulation ought to result in a capitalism that works equally in the interests of producer and consumer. If that is not the case, then it's a clear indicator that something has gone wrong, and that the balance needs to be restored.

These new regulations will go some way towards achieving  that, but they certainly shouldn't be seen as a happy outcome. The costs of any regulation are commonly passed to the consumer, and these changes will be no exception. No regulation is ever set in stone, however, and business leaders in the utilities industry should not give up trying to make theirs the sort of industry that requires less regulation, and not more. Leaders in other regulated industries should also take note. There will be much to learn from how the industry deal with its new regulatory environment, but there is also much to learn from the circumstances that led to such drastic action.

Therefore, it makes sense to examine why the regulator felt compelled to act in such drastic fashion. Regulation may seem to be the lesser of two evils, but the point is that the industry's relationship with its customers should never have deteriorated to the point where that was the case. For business leaders in the utilities industry, the lesser evil really ought to be an investment in building a productive relationship - fuelled by more in-depth insights - with their customers. Indeed, businesses in any regulated industry ought to take this attitude. A more proactive approach to soliciting customer opinion means that management are aware of the strength of customer demand say, for simpler pricing.  The investment required to do so, and the potential losses incurred, will almost always be offset in the long term; if industry practices can produce satisfied customers, then they will have a satisfied regulator as well.

At first glance, it may appear that energy companies have simply played by the letter of the law, but it's really more a case of them forgetting that their fight is with each other, and not with the regulator. There's a lack of competition,  but that's not to say that there are too few energy companies for market forces to be effective - the UK telecoms industry is one of the best in the world, and has fewer major players than the energy market. Rather, energy industry leaders have come to focus on the regulator, and not their competitors. Accordingly, regulators should see promoting competition as a priority, and a huge part of that comes from seeing the voice of the customer as a business resource, not just a matter for the customer complaints department. In a sector with an ethic of genuine competition,  those companies that do not heed the wishes of their customers do not last long. For example, the OFT rarely chastises retailers for unreasonable pricing - consumers do a very good job of that themselves.

I have written previously for this magazine of how we as a public have a vital part to play in building better businesses, and the energy industry is no exception. While it may form a relatively mundane part of our consumer experience, it is nonetheless a costly one, and we shouldn't allow ourselves to be distracted from making our voices heard. Energy companies for their part ought to make a  greater effort to listen, and to act upon what they hear; not only might they find advantages for their business, but the regulators would no longer have to interfere so strongly in the industry. It is right that  the state should step in when business practices within an industry leave consumers with few good options. However, it is the proper function of businesses to provide consumers with as many good options as possible, and that is the case in regulated industries as much as it is in those elsewhere in the economy. If customers are not forthcoming with their opinions then business leaders should do more to obtain their input - surely companies would rather meet the demands of their customers, rather than leaving it to the regulator to do so?

Photograph: Getty Images

Claire Richardson is VP at Verint

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change