Labour's plan to reform our broken energy market deserves cross-party support

Lack of competition and transparency has created an unfair market that consumers don’t trust, says former Conservative special adviser Tom Burke.

Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze met with a predictable, if not always credible, response from the energy industries. Led by Angela Knight, who was last heard from a few years ago asking us to stop being nasty to bankers, we were warned that this would halt investment and turn out the lights.

The current energy market doesn’t work either for consumers or for all the non-energy businesses in Britain. Lack of competition and transparency has created an unfair market that consumers don’t trust. The only lights going out now belong to households that can’t afford the electricity.

But what about investors? Will they really go on strike? Is it true that only ever larger profits must be made in order to to deliver investment , even if it is at the cost of consumers?

Keep two key points in mind as you listen to this argument. First, when you drill down into company accounts you see that some of the companies with the highest profits are investing the least in new plants. Rather than plough returns into a broken energy market they have opted to pay out dividends. Centrica has made the highest profits but 74% of this has gone back to shareholders.

Across the "Big Six", an average of 56% of their profits are going into dividend payments. This is a perfectly legitimate business strategy if there is no urgent need for investment. But it certainly questions the link between higher profits and investment. If there are no value-creating projects to invest in, you cannot argue that the lights will go out if you don’t invest.

Second, profits have grown over the last three years but investment has slumped. Large scale clean energy investment went from £7.2bn in 2009 to £3bn in 2012. And this takes us to the fundamental point. The market isn’t working any better for investors than for consumers.

The reality is that what investors need is long-term certainty. And the complex and incoherent measures in the Energy Bill are simply adding to the uncertainty. And this is why it was so encouraging to hear what Labour had to say on reforming the market. Commitment to the 2030 power sector decarbonisation target will help convince investors that there will be long-term demand for clean energy.

Combined with the proposals to revitalise the investment in energy efficiency, the contracts for difference for new generation and an Energy Security Board that will mean one body charged with doing everything necessary to meet the country’s energy needs, this will create a market that will offer investors much more stability than they have at present.

Tom Burke CBE was formerly a special adviser to three Conservative secretaries of state for the environment, and director of Friends of the Earth and the Green Alliance. He is currently a Founding Director of E3G

Ed Miliband gives an early morning radio interview next to a giant ice cube representing Labour's energy price freeze at the Labour Party conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.