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 Tories have missed a chance to show that they care about student debt

After condemning Jeremy Corbyn for his "betrayal", the government has still raised the top student interest rate to 6.1 per cent. 

For weeks, the Conservatives have assailed Jeremy Corbyn for his alleged betrayal over student debt. The Labour leader told NME during the campaign that he would "deal with" the issue. But he later clarified that this did not amount to a "commitment" to wipe out student debt (which would cost around £100bn) and that he had been "unaware of the size of it at the time". For this, the Tories have accused him of Clegg-style hypocrisy. 

There is little sign, however, that the attack has proved effective. Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of student debt and Corbyn's language in the NME interview was ambiguous. "I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [student debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off," he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 as part of the coalition. Young voters still credit Corbyn for his vow to abolish tuition fees (were he to break this promise in power, it would be a different matter). 

A further problem for the Tories is that they have spotlighted a problem - student debt - without offering any solution. At present, graduates pay a marginal tax rate of 41 per cent on earnings over £21,000 (20 per cent income tax, 12 per cent national insurance and 9 per cent student loan repayment). This, combined with the average debt (£50,800), leaves them struggling to save for a home deposit, or even to pay the rent. The Conservatives, unsurprisingly, are unable to sell capitalism to voters with no capital. 

Yet rather than remedying this problem, the government has compounded it. The Department of Education has ruled out reducing the top interest rate on student loans from 6.1 per cent, meaning the average student will accrue £5,800 in interest charges even before they graduate.

By maintaining the status quo, the Tories have missed a chance to demonstrate that they have learned from their electoral humbling. Had they reduced student debt, or cut tuition fees, they could have declared that while Corbyn talks, they act. Instead, they have merely confirmed that for graduates who want change, Corbyn remains their best hope. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.