While the Tories stand up for the energy companies, Labour stands up to them

Our pledge to freeze energy prices isn't a "gimmick" to customers being squeezed by corporate profiteers.

What confusing times we live in if you’re a Conservative. A fortnight ago, your leader, David Cameron, was attacking his Labour counterpart as akin to Stalin for promising an energy price freeze in Britain. A few days ago he changed tack and conceded that Ed Miliband might have "struck a chord" with the nation for pointing out that energy bills are outstripping wages for average families in our country. Then yesterday, another volte-face, at PMQs, when the Prime Minister seemed keener to defend the energy companies’ profits than concede that the British people might need their government to freeze prices on their behalf. Blinded by faith in the market – no matter how broken it might be – Mr Cameron appears to have permanently misplaced his Tory instinct that the customer should be king. Tell Sid about that.

I wonder if the Prime Minister knew yesterday, when he described Labour’s pro-customer stance as a "socialist gimmick" from a "Marxist universe", that this morning the energy company SSE planned to announce an inflation-busting 8.2% price rise for their customers across Britain – a million of whom live in Wales. He may not have done, but he might have anticipated it was coming given that SSE hiked their prices by 9% last year too. And even through the fog of confusion, he must surely have seen the injustice of such increases being imposed on customers in places like Wales where energy bills are already among the highest and the wages to pay them lower than elsewhere.

Of course the company would have us believe that these prices rises are necessary to allow reasonable returns to shareholders who are investing in infrastructure improvements, complying with decarbonisation targets and facing increased wholesale costs. And those claims might carry more force were the truth not that SSE announced in March an operating profit for its retail arm of £410m, as part of an overall pre-tax profit of £1.4bn for the group’s network, generating and retail arms as a whole. No wonder they can afford to pay their chief executive a £755,000 basic salary and their finance director a mere £610,000, when those profits rose 18.9% in the particularly lucrativenNetworks arm (the wires and pipes which constitute part of their £6.36bn 'Natural Monopoly Business') and a whopping 27.5% in the retail arm which is milking its customers. No wonder, too, they could afford to pay the £10.5m fine imposed by Ofgem earlier this year for mis-selling to those same customers by misleading them about the savings they might make by switching to SSE tariffs.

In Wales, where energy prices, according to the Department for Energy and Climate Change, are already the highest in Britain, at an average of £1,310 per annum versus £1,279 across the rest of the UK, the news that SSE intends turn the screw in order to deliver above-inflation dividends next year will land with the force of an SSE bill on the doormat. Wages in Wales have fallen by an average of £1,700 per household since the Tory-led coalition came to power and disposable incomes have traditionally always been lower in our post-industrial economy. The cost of living crisis is felt at its sharpest here.

Wales needs a government in Westminster to stand up to these companies and demand that they desist from the profiteering in which they are clearly engaged. Ed Miliband is asking for the opportunity to lead such a government and his words of warning to SSE and their five fellow companies have rung out across the country. When looking for comparators for Ed, David Cameron might do well to well to drop the McCarthyite rhetoric of reds under the bed, and reflect instead on the relevance of another figure from US politics: Theodore Roosevelt and the 'trust-busting' policies which carried him to power. Mr Cameron has a choice to make: does he want to stand up for the energy companies or stand up to them? We already know the choice Ed Miliband has made: we will speak for the people and freeze that bill.

David Cameron speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester last week. Photograph: Getty Images.

Owen Smith is a Labour leadership candidate and MP for Pontypridd. 

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder