New questions for the big six mean Miliband's price freeze will continue to dominate

A new study by Ofgem shows that while consumers are paying up to 11.1% more, wholesale prices have risen by just 1.7% in the last year.

As even Conservatives now privately concede, Ed Miliband's pledge to freeze energy prices has had more political impact than any announcement since George Osborne's 2007 promise to cut inheritance tax. In the five weeks since the Labour conference, rarely a day has passed without it leading the debate. 

If the Tories are hoping to change the subject this week, they're likely to prove disappointed. On Tuesday, representatives of the big six will appear before the energy select committee to be questioned on price rises, and the day hasn't begun well for them. New data from the energy regulator Ofgem shows that while consumers have been hit by price increases of up to 11.1%, wholesale prices have risen by just 1.7% over the last year. It's a finding that will make it even harder for the firms to justify their inflation-busting price hikes. While the wholesale element of the average bill has risen from £600 to £610, Ofgem estimates that companies’ average net profit margin has more than doubled from £45 a household to £95.

The big six have responded this morning by disputing Ofgem's figures. A spokesman for British Gas said: "The prices that individual suppliers pay depend on their own hedging strategies, and the Ofgem methodology is, at best, an approximation of what those hedging profiles are. We buy a certain amount of gas more than two years in advance, and if you look at the 24 month figure to October 2013, there has been an 18 per cent increase in the wholesale cost." A spokesman for SSE said: "This is very much a global market and we are seeing increased international competition for supplies, which is putting up prices". But given the consistent lack of transparency shown by firms over how their profits are made, few will be willing to accept their excuses. 

For the coalition, the energy companies' kamikaze media strategy is a political headache. While it's likely that George Osborne will announce plans to reduce the green charges paid by consumers when he delivers his Autumn Statement on 4 December, the government still lacks a policy able to convince the public that it is on their side against the big six. A recent poll by Survation for the Mail on Sunday found that 75% do not believe that green measures are to blame for higher bills. Unless ministers are prepared to demonstrate how they will force companies to return some of their ill-gotten gains, it is alternative proposals, whether Miliband's price freeze or Major's windfall tax, that will continue to dominate. 

British Gas branding adorns the entrance to Leicester's Aylestone Road British Gas Centre. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue