Why a bonfire of the green taxes won't save the Tories

Polling shows that 75% of the public don't believe that green taxes are to blame for the surge in bills, and they're right.

The more optimistic among the Conservatives are hailing David Cameron's surprise pledge at PMQs to "roll back" green taxes as an intervention that could allow them to regain control of the energy debate from Ed Miliband. But even if Cameron can get his plan past the Lib Dems (which appears unlikely), it is doubtful that it will produce the political benefits that the Tories hope.

A recent poll by Survation for the Mail on Sunday found that 75% of the public do not believe that green taxes are to blame for higher bills, and they're largely right. The recent surge in energy prices owes much more to increased wholesale prices and profiteering by the big six than it does to environmental levies. In addition, of the £112 of "green taxes and green regulations" attacked by Cameron, the majority are energy efficiency measures designed to aid vulnerable households, including the Energy Company Obligation (£50), the Warm Home Discount for pensioners (£11) and smart meters and better billing (£3). Thus, of the average energy bill of £1,276, just £50 (4%) is accounted for by green taxes in the form of the Renewables Obligation (£30), the Carbon Price Floor (£3), the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (£8) and feed in tariffs (£7).

The Tories could transfer the cost of these measures (which are forecast to reduce bills by £166 by 2020) from consumer bills to general taxation, as the SNP has pledged to do, but Labour would simply reply that the government is giving with one hand and taking with one another. Owing to the big six, bills will continue to rise remorselessly. A bonfire of the green taxes lacks the symbolic power of a two-year freeze in prices and will do nothing to convince the public that the government is prepared to side with them against the energy companies. If the Tories want to trump Miliband, they'll need to go back to the drawing board. 

David Cameron returns to Downing Street earlier today after Prime Minister's Questions. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.