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 Labour MP for Pontypridd and Shadow Secretary of State for Work & Pensions.

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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.