Miliband's energy price cap is a brilliant trap for the Tories

The Tories' natural aversion to price controls means they will struggle to support a cap, leaving Miliband free to present Cameron as siding with the companies over the consumers.

After spending the summer telling voters that they're worse off under the Tories, Ed Miliband knew that he needed an emblematic policy that would show them how they'd be better off under Labour. The result, unveiled in his speech, was a pledge to freeze energy prices until 2017. Miliband said: "The next Labour government will freeze gas and electricity prices until the start of 2017. Your bills will be frozen, benefitting millions of families and millions of businesses. That is what I mean by a government that fights for you. That's what I mean when I say: Britain can do better than this."

One senior Labour strategist told me after the speech that the party had focused-grouped the policy and that voter approval was "off the scale". Polling has consistently shown that of every 'cost-of-living' issue, it is energy prices that are the public's greatest concern. With this intervention, Miliband has framed himself as a strong leader prepared to stand up to predatory firms on behalf of the little guy. He noted that "the companies won't like it because it will cost them money" but added: "they have been overcharging people for so long because the market does not work. And we need to press the reset button." The party calculates that the move, which will be backed by legislation in the first month of a Labour government, will save consumers £120 and businesses £1,800.

While the Tories have capped benefits and immigration, Miliband has smartly borrowed this device to show how Labour would tackle the 'cost of living crisis" it has so often bemoaned. The question now is how the Conservaties will respond: will they steal it or kill it? David Cameron has promised action to force firms "to give the lowest tariff to their customers" but this falls well short of Miliband's pledge, and charities and consumer groups warn that it will have little meaningful effect on prices.

So far, the Tory attack machine has responded by claiming that Miliband's commitment to a 2030 decarbonisation target would add £125 to households' energy bills but soon Cameron will be forced to answer the question that Labour will inevitably pose: are you for a cap or against one?

The Tories' natural free-market aversion to price controls means it will be hard for Cameron to support any form of cap, but he will be reluctant to allow Labour to claim that he has taken the side of companies over consumers and again stood up for the "wrong people". At the moment, the Tories' response to Miliband's cap seems to be to change the subject. But as Labour found in the case of welfare and immigration, that is a politically fraught course. With his announcement today, Miliband has set a brilliant trap for Cameron that the Conservatives will struggle to avoid walking into. 

Ed Miliband delivers his speech to the Labour conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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