The problem with Cameron's energy plan

A tariff is not "the lowest" if it's the only one available.

When David Cameron boldly declared, to the surprise of his ministers, that the government would force energy companies to put all their customers on the lowest tariff available, few expected his proposal to last. But the coalition will today attempt to fulfil the Prime Minister's pledge. Energy Secretary Ed Davey is expected to announce that suppliers will be required to offer no more than four core tariffs (including fixed and variable rates) and to automatically move customers on to the cheapest one in each case.

Yet if companies are forced to offer consumers the lowest tariff in each category (be it fixed rate or variable), this won't be the lowest tariff available - it will be the only one. It would be as accurate to call it "the highest" tariff as it would be to call it "the lowest". And why should we assume that this single tariff will be set at the lowest rate currently available? The danger is that that the "Big Six" will simply raise the level of the lowest tariff, so that consumers pay no less, or even more, than at present. Ann Robinson, director of consumer policy at uSwitch, has warned that the unintended consequence of the move will be "to kill competition". She told the Guardian: "Consumers will be left with Hobson's choice – there will be no spur, no choice, no innovation and no reason for consumers to engage any more."

Labour too is sceptical. Shadow energy secretary Caroline Flint notes that "the cheapest deal in an uncompetitive market will still not be a good deal. Unless David Cameron stands up to vested interests in the energy market and creates a tough new watchdog with powers to force energy companies to pass on price cuts his warm words will be cold comfort to people worried about paying their fuel bill this winter. "

In promising to win a better deal for consumers and denouncing the last Labour government for its failure to do so, Cameron has raised significant expectations. If he proves unable to fulfil them, it is his government that will pay the price.

David Cameron with Energy Secretary Ed Davey. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.