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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Labour finds it easier to ignore the working class than to persuade them

The metropolitan left needs to start acting as if it is even partly as much concerned about Rochdale as it is about Aleppo.

There’s surely a deliciously bitter irony in the fact that Michael Gove’s favourite work of history is George Dangerfield’s 1935 classic The Strange Death of Liberal England. Beloved of the common reader, mistrusted by those haughty “experts” we’ve had enough of, Dangerfield tells of a British liberal consensus eroded over decades but eventually wiped out by the carnage of the First World War. For the Great War, read the cataclysm of last June’s Brexit vote, relished by Gove and the like, and you have lessons regarding the strange, ongoing death of Neoliberal England.

The year after Dangerfield’s volume appeared, 200 men marched from Jarrow to London to implore the Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin to bring jobs to their beleaguered town. The smooth and emollient Baldwin wouldn’t see them, which suggests that the notion of an aloof metropolitan elite turning its back on a rusting, post-industrial north is no modern invention.

Dangerfield never offers a cogent analysis of why the normally placid British began to throw themselves under police horses, go on hunger marches, join militant unions and generally abandon their consensual deference in favour of harsher doctrines. He found it as bewildering and mysterious as the tides. The death of what we might call Neoliberal England is much more explicable, if unpalatable to some. Liberal commentators have been rudely awakened to the fact that benign progressivists from Professor Pangloss to Francis Fukuyama onwards were wrong. Assuming that, left alone, “the masses” will come around to your way of thinking is rather like those churchmen who thought babies raised in silence would automatically speak English. It is presumptuous and leads to disaster.

I found myself thinking often of lines from Yeats’s “The Second Coming”. Rough beasts slouched through the streets of Batley. Corbyn, Cameron and the other indentured members of the Westminster political class lacked all conviction. Cameron utterly miscalculated the country’s mood and hugely overestimated its opinion of his own appeal and competence. Corbyn lurked silent and wraithlike on the edges of the national debate, a study in uselessness. By contrast, as Yeats put it, the worst (Farage, Johnson, the foaming and splenetic demagogues of the Mail and the Spectator) were full of a passionate intensity. They were full of something else, too, lying through their grins about extra money for the NHS. But by then the damage had been done.

Because immigration had a crude and ugly sound, it was left to only the crude and ugly of politics to mention it. This was a mistake. As Adam Shatz put it in the London Review of Books, few mainstream politicians wanted to engage with “the fabled white working class . . . which most of us have found it easier to hate than persuade”. Yet persuasion is important, however little the present leadership of the Labour Party seems to care for this element of politics. One gets the distinct impression that Jeremy Corbyn and his acolytes would prefer the purity and posturing of permanent opposition rather than the messy, compromised business of government. They offer ineffectuality and disdainful superiority dressed up as a kind of saintly decency. Maybe Jeremy feels that by not doing anything, he cannot do anything wrong. He should be disabused of this notion, and quickly.

Second, and this would seem so obvious as to not need saying, Labour needs to reconnect with its former industrial heartland. This doesn’t necessarily mean “turning to the right” or “abandoning left-wing principles”, or even embracing the dreaded “Blairism’’. But it does mean addressing (even with nose pinched between fingers) the legitimate concerns in the north and the Midlands about immigration, jobs and welfare. The metropolitan left needs to start acting as if it is even partly as much concerned about Rochdale as it is about Aleppo.

People disagreeing with you might be irritating – even galling – but it is not undemocratic. Democracy and liberalism are not synonymous. You can have one without the other. We struggled through most of the 1980s nominally democratic but unarguably illiberal. What Labour needs now is, perhaps, fewer ideologues and a few more psephologists, someone who might conceivably tell the party how voting works and how elections are won. If so, some of my former A-level sociology and politics students in Skelmersdale are probably still available for work.

Stuart Maconie is a writer and broadcaster

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition