Miliband is right to stand up to the energy companies' blackmail

Were trade unions threatening to plunge the country into darkness, Cameron would be calling in the troops.

Ed Miliband's promise to fix energy bills for 20 months if Labour win the 2015 election will remove some of the pressure that ordinary people across the country feel every day. Households are already paying £2bn more for their gas and electricity after the last hikes in November 2012. Now the energy companies are looking to add another £1.4bn onto bills this coming winter. This has added £300 to the average bill in this parliament. This cannot go on.

Immediately after Ed’s announcement, the usual shouts came that this was "meddling in the free market". "Back to the seventies" and "you can't beat supply and demand" echoed on. Let us put aside the fact that the average yearly growth in the 1970s, 2.88%, is more than the economy has grown in total since Quarter 3 2010. The energy market in this country is not a free market, it is a racket. Six multinational companies dominate, and in much of the country choice is reduced still further. These companies are now threatening blackouts if their profits are in any way challenged by an elected government. Were this a trade union threatening to plunge the country into darkness, Mr Cameron would be calling in the troops. Yet when it is time to challenge a private cartel about that classic seventies question, “who runs Britain?” this government is silent. 

Npower were first out of the traps on Tuesday, with their spokesman decrying these "easy answers", and that the "global market" would drive costs regardless of what they did. The biggest shareholders in Npower, or to give it its proper name Rheinisch-Westfälisches Elektrizitätswerk Npower plc, are a group of German towns and cities. In other words, the profits Npower extracts from the British people allow German municipalities to keep the rates down. The people of Middlesbrough are effectively paying rent to the people of Münster. It seems state intervention is acceptable when investing in your corporation, but bad when it seeks to limit your profits.

This confused attitude to the "free market" runs through all the "Big Six". Iberdrola, owners of Scottish Power, are kept liquid by €27bn in state backed loans and massive subsidies from the struggling Spanish government.  Both Centrica and Scottish and Southern Electric are receiving over £50m each in subsidies just for wind power. E.On’s decision whether or not to build a new biomass generator in Bristol was not dependent upon ‘market forces’, but how much tax-payer money the Department for Energy and Climate Change would promise it.

Perhaps the greatest example of state interference however is Électricité de France, EdF, controlled by the French state. They are the company that we are turning to to build a new generation of nuclear power stations. Britain, which built the first commercial nuclear generator in the world at Calder Hall, must now wait on the whim of the French President.

Has it really come to this? That a country once the workshop of the world relies on the French to build its power stations? On the Danes to forge its turbines? On Norwegian gas to keep our lights on? Is Britain a ‘third world’ country that it has to beg for foreign investment to upgrade its infrastructure?

I welcome companies from all around the world who want to set up shop in Britain. This nation gains greatly from international firms bringing their skills and expertise here, and we are richer for it. Our membership of the European Union and good working relationship with our European neighbours is a key part of this attraction. But those meetings must always be as equals, not as supplicants.

The repeated refusal of the British state to back its own people has led to the basics of life; from water, to energy, to transport being sold off not to thousands of plucky entrepreneurs, but to American corporate titans, Chinese and Arab sovereign wealth funds, or the state-backed enterprises of our savvier European cousins. Rather than invest in our own youngsters, our own infrastructure, our own future, a small elite have skewed our economy not by accident, but by design. As Ed said on Tuesday, Britain can do better than this.

Andy McDonald is the Labour MP for Middlesbrough

The logo of the French electricity company EDF is pictured on a building of the Fessenheim nuclear power plant reactor in eastern France. Photograph: Getty Images.
Jeremy Corbyn speaks to the media as he leaves a radio hustings on August 25, 2015 in Stevenage. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Corbyn's compromises show that he isn't so different from his rivals

The Labour leadership frontrunner is a politician after all. 

Jeremy Corbyn is lauded by his supporters for his honesty and conviction. His repudiation of the shabby compromises and realpolitik of Westminster. With no less fervour, he is denounced by his opponents as an unreconstructed ideologue, a man allergic to compromise. But as the Labour leadership contest reaches its denouement, the frontrunner is showing his pragmatic side. 

Having declared his support for British withdrawal from Nato ("I'd rather we weren't in it," he told the NS), Corbyn acknowledged at yesterday's Mirror hustings that there wasn't "an appetite as a whole for people to leave" and that he would instead call for the body to "restrict its role". The next Labour manifesto, should he oversee it, will not oppose membership (even the "longest suicide note in history" did not). Corbyn's compromise should not come as a surprise. Senior MPs told me that it would be all but impossible for him to find a shadow foreign secretary prepared to advocate withdrawal. On Tuesday, Andy Burnham, one of the few senior figures prepared to serve under the left-winger, had declared that he would resign rather than oppose membership. On this issue, Corbyn has shown that he is prepared to reach an accommodation with his colleagues and, more significantly, with the electorate - the act for which his rivals are condemned. 

Nor is this the first time that Corbyn has put pragmatism before principle. After refusing to rule out supporting EU withdrawal, he later clarified that "We cannot be content with the state of the EU as it stands. But that does not mean walking away, but staying to fight together for a better Europe." On the monarchy, the lifelong republican ruled that abolition could wait because "my priority is social justice" (another dreaded compromise with the electorate). If, as seems certain, Corbyn is elected leader, more trade-offs will surely follow. Once principles have been conceded a few times for reasons of electability or practicality it is harder to avoid doing so again. Corbyn, it turns out, is a politician after all. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.