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 Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.