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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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR