Even Lynton Crosby must know the Tories are on the wrong side of the energy debate

By defending a broken energy market, the Conservatives have shown how out of touch they are with consumers.

There are only two explanations I can think of for the ill-judged and half-baked response of the Tories to the key announcements unveiled by Ed Miliband this week. The first is that Lynton Crosby has been on holiday. And the second is that they are even more out of touch than we imagined. I doubt, however, that David Cameron would give his pet lobbyist time off the week off before his party’s own conference. So, the latter must be true.
 
Yet even Lynton must have wondered at the hysterical response to Ed’s announcement that we would freeze gas and electricity bills in 2015, for 20 months, while we reset the market. Street lights would flicker and snuff out, companies would leave and investment in renewable energy would grind to a halt. The notion that the energy companies, which have increased average bills by £300 over the last three years, are at risk of going bust if Labour freezes bills for 20 months is frankly ridiculous. And the idea that they need to make excess profits at the expense of the consumer to invest, ignores the fact that profits have gone up over the last four years but investment in clean energy has slumped from £7.2bn in 2009 to £3bn in 2012.
 
Take Centrica, for example, the company that has been most vocal about our proposal. They claim that "if prices were to be controlled against a background of rising costs it would simply not be economically viable for Centrica, or indeed any other energy supplier, to continue to operate and far less to meet the sizeable investment challenge that the industry is facing". The reality is that over recent years, Centrica has made the biggest profits of any of the Big Six but has invested the least in new plants. Rather than delivering the investment everyone agrees we need, they have been paying 74% of their profits out as dividends. The truth is that some of these companies have seen profits from their sales to households rise by 30% in a year, irrespective whether the cost of wholesale generation and purchase has risen or fallen. In fact, the only thing that’s fallen as far as customers are concerned is trust in companies that appear to be operating in a market which for them is more comfortable than competitive. And all this at a time when working people are an average of almost £1,500 a year worse off under this government.
 
Labour’s proposal, advanced with such clarity in Ed Miliband’s inspiring speech at Brighton, is no more than a proportionate, just and necessary corrective to this situation. It will be an intervention on behalf of the people by a government fighting for the interest of the people. And the people should not be expected to stand by and be bullied, or held to ransom, by companies implausibly threatening job losses and capital flight.
 
We might recall the prophecies of doom which accompanied the creation of the minimum wage – a control on the price of labour itself, of course – and the reality that unemployment didn’t increase and businesses were able to compete through higher skills and greater investment instead. A race to the top, instead of a race to the bottom, if you like. So let’s get this policy in perspective and hear no more nonsense about Seventies-style socialism. What Ed has suggested is just the right thing to do by a Labour government that welcomes market mechanisms where they function well and in the interests of consumers, businesses and the society which they inhabit. This is about resetting a broken market and injecting the competition and transparency that we need to restore fairness and trust.
 
David Cameron and his grossly out-of- touch colleagues would do well to stop defending the profits of the energy companies and instead read David Sainsbury’s excellent new book Progressive Capitalism. There, the PM might learn from someone who was at the heart of the New Labour about the necessity of government intervening to set rules and create institutions that can manage markets in the interests of the people, not of the profiteers. And he might also decide the right thing to do is to pinch our proposal and freeze prices sooner than 2015. Consider it a freebie, Mr Cameron, a policy gift from Labour. Keep it; we’ve got plenty more to spare.
 
David Cameron with shadow energy secretary Ed Davey at the Clean Energy Ministerial Conference on April 26, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Owen Smith is a Labour leadership candidate and MP for Pontypridd. 

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA