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.
Photo: Getty Images
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How can the left make the case for immigration?

All too often, we drift into telling people we want to convince that they just don't get it.

We don’t give the public enough credit. You’ll often hear their views dismissed with sighs in intellectual circles. In fact on most issues the public are broadly sensible, most are these days supportive of cutting the deficit and dubious about political giveaways, but in favor of protecting spending on the NHS and education. Yet there is one issue where most, “knowledgeable” folks will tell you the public are well out of step: immigration. 

With [today’s] net migration figures showing yet another record high, it is an ever more salient issue. On a lot of measures ‘too much immigration’ ranks highest as the number one concern (see Ipossmori). The ongoing rise of right wing political parties across Europe demonstrates that simply enough. But concerns about immigration don’t just sit with those with more extreme views, they’re also shared across the mainstream of public opinion. Yet unlike thinking on cutting the deficit or funding the NHS the public consensus that immigration is bad for Britain, flies flat in the face of the intellectual consensus, and by that I mean the economics. 

Given the intense public debate many a study has tried to spell out the economic impact of immigration, most find that it is positive. Immigration boosts the nation’s GDP. As the theory goes this is because immigrants bring with them entrepreneurialism and new ideas to the economy. This means firstly that they help start new ventures that in turn create more wealth and jobs for natives. They also help the supply chains to keep ticking. A example being British agriculture, where seasonal workers are are needed, for example, to pick the strawberries which help keeps the farms, the truckers and the sellers in business. 

Most studies also find little evidence of British jobs being lost (or displaced) due to immigrants, certainly when the economy is growing. Indeed economists refer to such “ “they’re” taking our jobs” arguments as the “lump of labour fallacy’. On top of all that the average migrant is younger than the native population and less likely to rely on welfare, so their net contribution to the state coffers are more likely to be positive than natives as they don’t draw as much state spending from pensions or the NHS. 

So why haven't the public cottoned on? Many progressive types dismiss such views as racist or xenophobic. But it turns out this is to misunderstand the public just as much as the public ‘misunderstand’ immigration. When you study people’s views on immigration more closely it becomes clear why. Far from being racist most people asked by focus groups cite practical concerns with immigration. Indeed if you go by the British Social Attitudes Survey a much smaller number of people express racist view than say they are concerned about migration.  

The think tank British Future broadly set out that while a quarter of people are opposed to immigration in principle and another quarter are positive about it the majority are concerned for practical reasons - concerns about whether the NHS can cope, whether there are enough social houses, whether our border controls are up to scratch and whether we know how many people are coming here in the first place (we don’t since exit checks were scrapped, they only came back a few months ago). But more than anything else they also have very little confidence that government can or wants to do anything about it. 

This truth, which is to often ignored, begets two things. Firstly, we go about making the argument in the wrong way. Telling someone “you don’t understand immigration is good for our economy etc etc” is going to get a reaction which says “this person just doesn't get my concerns”. Despite the moans of progressives, this is precisely why you won't hear left leaning politicians with any nous ‘preaching’ the the unconditional benefits of immigration.

More importantly, the economic arguments miss the central issue that those concerned with immigration have, that the benefits and effects of it are not shared fairly. Firstly migrants don’t settle homogeneously across the country, some areas have heavy influxes other have very little. So while the net effect of immigration may be positive on the national tax take that doesn't mean that public services in certain areas don’t loose out. Now there isn't clear evidence of this being the case, but that could just as well be because we don’t record the usage of public services by citizenship status. 

The effects are also not equal on the income scale, because while those of us with higher incomes scale tend to benefit from cheep labour in construction, care or agriculture (where many lower skilled migrants go) the lower paid British minority who work in those sectors do see small downward pressure on their wages. 

It’s these senses of unfairness of how migration has been managed (or not) that leads to the sense of concern and resentment. And any arguments about the benefit to the UK economy fail to answer the question of what about my local economy or my bit of the labour market. 

Its worth saying that most of these concerns are over-egged and misused by opponents of immigration. Its only a small factor in stagnating wages, and few local areas are really overrun. But the narrative is all important, if you want to win this argument you have to understand the concerns of the people you are trying to convince. That means the right way to make the argument about immigration is to start by acknowledging your opponents concerns - we do need better border controls and to manage demands on public services. Then persuade them that if we did pull up the drawbridge there is much we’d loose in smart entrepreneurs and in cultural diversity. 

Just whatever you do, don’t call them racist, they’re probably not.

Steve O'Neill was deputy head of policy for the Liberal Democrats until the election.