We need to talk about profit

Accounting profit is necessary for publicly traded companies to survive; it's not a sign of extortion.

Profit is seen as a pretty ugly thing for public services to be dealing in. Take the Guardian's Terry Macalister in April (only picked because it's the most recent I can find):

The big six energy suppliers have been accused of "cold-blooded profiteering" after official figures showed they had more than doubled their retail profit margins over the last 18 months and were now earning an average of £95 profit per household on dual-fuel bills.

To be clear, the profit motive is a fair target. There's a real debate to be had over whether or not companies providing public services should be operating under a legal structure which requires them to try to maximise the amount of cash (over the long term) they can return to shareholders, rather than, say, maximising the quality of service provided for a given investment, or providing a set level of service at the minimum cost possible.

But given public services are frequently run by private companies, attacking the amount of profit they actually make is concerning, for one simple reason: money costs money.

It's a basic fact of the economy, one which explains why it takes so long to pay off credit card bills, why the bank pays you if you've got a savings account, and why Greece is finding things tricky at the moment.

But while we're all familiar with debt finance – the act of borrowing a sum, and then paying it back with interest – corporations have an alternative way of paying for the money they need: equity finance. Rather than paying interest on top of borrowed cash, they return a share of the money they make with their loans to the people who loaned to them in the first place.

That money being returned – the equivalent of the interest which we all have experience paying – is profit.

If companies don't earn some profit, then the shareholders are likely to cash out, safe in the knowledge that they can earn more by putting their money elsewhere – maybe by buying shares in another company, or putting it in a high interest savings account. The amount of profit that companies have to earn to stop this happening will vary based on the perceived riskiness of investing in them, as well as the value of investments elsewhere, and is known as the "cost of capital".

Power companies need to be able to make investments, frequently valued in the billions of pounds (Macalister quotes one industry analyst who estimates £50bn is needed just to hook up new gas supplies). It's only by making profit today – that is, by rewarding the shareholders who bought in to the companies before – that they can ensure that they have enough funding to carry on paying for investments tomorrow.

None of this is to say that there can't be such a thing as "too much" profit; if Thames Water were to suddenly make Apple-sized margins, we could be pretty sure that they were overcharging or underinvesting. But simply making accounting profit, even at the same time as pleading penury and raising prices, is not a sign of underhandedness. It's just a sign of a business working as normal.

Companies which deliberately and continually make no profit do exist. But they aren't traded on the open market, and have no access to equity finance. That's fine for some, but worrisome if they suddenly need to find large amounts of cash to invest – or to stave off the creditors.

Perhaps public services should be run as non-profits, or not be run privately at all; but if they are, attacking them for making profit is foolish.

Hinckley Point nuclear power station. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Green party calls on Labour, Lib Dems, and Plaid Cymru to form a "progressive alliance" next election

Will Jeremy Corbyn, Tim Farron and Leanne Wood agree to meet for talks?

The Green party leadership have called upon Labour, the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru to work together to challenge the Tories at the next election. In an open letter, the Green leaders stress the exceptional circumstances occassioned by the vote to leave the EU:

“In a spirit of openness and transparency, we are writing to you as leaders of parties which oppose Brexit, to invite you to a cross-party meeting to explore how we best rise to the challenge posed by last week’s vote to Leave the EU.  

“We have a UK Government in chaos, an economy facing a crisis and people up and down the country facing serious hardship. There is an urgent need to make a stand against any austerity and the slashing of environmental legislation, human and workers’ rights, that may come with Brexit. 

“With the growing likelihood of an early General Election, the importance of progressive parties working together to prevent the formation of a Tory-UKIP-DUP government that would seek to enact an ultra-right Brexit scenario is ever more pressing.

Caroline Lucas shot down a rumour that she would be joining Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. But her party has decided to call for a progressive alliance and an early general election. 

Key to such cross-party talks would be the demand for electoral reform, as the leader Natalie Bennett added in a statement:

“Central to such a progressive alliance would be a commitment to proportional elections for the House of Commons and an elected second chamber.”

The call for a more plural politics follows a post-referendum surge in Green party membership, with up to 50 people joining per hour.

Here’s the letter in full:

Open letter to: Jeremy Corbyn, Tim Farron, Leanne Wood on behalf of Green Party of England and Wales,

In a spirit of openness and transparency, we are writing to you as Leaders of parties which oppose Brexit, to invite you to a cross-party meeting to explore how we best rise to the challenge posed by last week’s vote to Leave the EU.  

Britain is in crisis and people are scared about the future. Never have we had a greater need for calm leadership to be shown by politicians.  

We have a UK Government in chaos, an economy facing a crisis and people up and down the country facing serious hardship. There is an urgent need to make a stand against any austerity and the slashing of environmental legislation, human and workers’ rights, that may come with Brexit. 

With the growing likelihood of an early General Election, the importance of progressive parties working together to prevent the formation of a Tory-UKIP-DUP government that would seek to enact an ultra-right Brexit scenario is ever more pressing.

This is an opportunity to recognise that a more plural politics is in both the Left’s electoral and political interests. This crisis exposes the absurdity of our first past the post electoral system.  Just 24 per cent of those eligible to vote elected the government that called the referendum. The only fair way to proceed is to have a proportional voting system where people can back the politicians who they believe in, rather than taking a gamble and not knowing who they will end up with.  

The idea of a progressive alliance has been floated for several years, and proposals have once again been put forward in the context of the current crisis.  We believe that the time has come to urgently consider such ideas together in the context of a Westminster Government. We recognise the very different political situation in Scotland, given the strongly pro-EU majority there. We hope that co-operation between progressive parties their can ensure that this mandate is respected, and we will support them to keep all options open.

We look forward to your response,

Natalie Bennett, Leader of The Green Party of England and Wales

Steven Agnew MLA, Leader of the Green Party of Northern Ireland

Alice Hooker-Stroud, Leader of Wales Green Party

Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.