Should we follow New Zealand and nationalise consumer energy sales?

There's much more to be done in the energy sector, writes William Wallace.

Kia ora! New Zealand; stunning mountains, untouched coastline, rugby madness – but also a policy goldmine. British politicians love “borrowing” ideas from our Australian and New Zealander cousins (Scandanavia always serves well in a pinch). From welfare reform to free schools, through family law and prisoner rehabilitation, we’ll take it. So could there be the potential to add energy policy inspired by the Kiwi left to the mix?

A conversation with a friend in the New Zealand energy sector alerted me to this policy announcement from the New Zealand Labour Party. Could the proposal to create a new, independent body, "NZ Power", to act as a single buyer of wholesale electricity inspire the UK parties to revisit their troubled consumer energy policies? With the Energy Bill stumbling into a new parliamentary session and Ofgem announcing a new, complex, tariff comparison service there is certainly scope for fresh policy thinking.

At first sight, as a New Zealand Minister has said, it all sounds a little “North Korea like”. And it is. But reading the policy in more detail, the power of a new regulator to take a unified approach to development, the energy mix, set prices based on operating costs and a fair return on investment and encourage competition in the interests of consumers might pique more interest among policy makers. The policy comes with claims that prices for the average household will drop by £150, business prices will drop between 5 per cent and 7 per cent and 5000 jobs will be created. All hot air? Maybe, but it sounds politically attractive enough to give some food for thought.

Energy is shaping up to be one of the defining issues of the next general election like never before. But despite the current Energy Bill going through its parliamentary stages, neither Caroline Flint (with her slightly light pronouncements on abolishing Ofgem announced on a whim at party conference) or Number Ten’s disastrous counter-attack announcing un-workable plans that everyone would get the lowest tariff have come up with a way to address persistent energy price rises. With Labour viewing energy through the prism of consumer fairness and the Coalition through the prism of growth, there is certainly scope for  some fresh thinking on the issue.

In reality, this policy isn’t going to happen in the UK. It’s clearly politically toxic, with the Coalition likely to reject it on ideological and competition grounds and any Labour temptation towards nationalisation tempered by long-memories of Michael Foot and co. But what this does serve to show is that there is a paucity of ideas in this electorally significant area and as the Energy Bill continues to stall in Parliament, manifestos develop and the parties move to a war footing, that fact is becoming ever more politically relevant.

William Wallace is a Consultant at Fishburn Hedges.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.