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

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.