The energy companies can't avoid the blame for rising prices

While shifting the debate towards green levies, the Big Six have remained much quieter about their healthy profits.

They may be public enemy number one but you can't accuse the energy companies of being inept at public relations. Since their appearance in front of the energy select committee two weeks ago, the Big Six have successfully moved the conversation about energy bills away from their own profits and practices and on to so-called green levies. But by promising to "roll back" these charges, the Prime Minister is marching to their tune and failing to get the best deal for consumers.

Energy companies like to blame anyone but themselves for rising energy prices. In announcing their inflation-busting price rises, energy companies were quick to focus on wholesale gas prices and the levies on bills for low carbon energy and fuel poverty reduction.

They were much quieter about their own rising profits and operating costs. Energy firms make a healthy 5 or 6 per cent from their supply arms. They claim this is needed to make necessary investments but their own generation businesses report profits as high as 20 per cent.

Instead of scrutinising the acceptability of this level of profits in the energy supply industry, or questioning why operating costs appear to be spiralling upwards, the media have lapped up energy bosses describing green levies as a "stealth poll tax".

The only obfuscation, however, is by the energy companies themselves. New figures from Ofgem, released following a freedom of information request by IPPR, show that the two companies performing least well are those that have jacked up their energy prices the most. British Gas added £50 to consumers' bills for these charges but has delivered just 4, 6 and 9 per cent of its obligations. Scottish Power, by contrast, have delivered 24, 48 and 31 per cent and only raised green charges by £20.

If the money can be found, there is something to be said for moving green charges off energy bills and onto general taxation. That would make them more progressive. But a higher priority should be moving subsidies for low carbon generation off bills and onto taxation, because landowners and big companies are currently the big beneficiaries of this subsidy. Moving measures to improve fuel poverty should come second because these are at least partly progressive.

Regardless, the government now looks all but certain to do this at the oddly-named Autumn Statement on 5 December. If this is the case, it must ensure that this goes hand in hand with reform of its fuel poverty policy. The current policy is failing to get help to the intended recipients. As IPPR has shown, around 80 per cent of the policy budget, £434m of £540m, is being spent on homes that are not fuel poor. And 1.3 million fuel poor households are not eligible for any form or support.

Instead, we need a much more targeted approach to fuel poverty. The best approach is for local organisations to give out free assessments to work out who is fuel poor so that support reaches those who really need it. And to help everyone who is struggling with high energy bills, low interest loans for making energy efficiency improvements should be made widely available.

The EDF coal-fired plant, in Blenod-les-Pont-a-Mousson, eastern France. Photograph: Getty Images.

Will Straw was Director of Britain Stronger In Europe, the cross-party campaign to keep Britain in the European Union. 

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Is Labour really as doomed as it seems? The polls have got it wrong before

Pollsters often overrate Labour's performance. But in two elections, the opposite happened. 

Few moments in the Labour Party’s history can have felt as gloomy as this one. Going into a general election that almost no-one expects them to win, their overall opinion polling is appalling. Labour seems becalmed in the mid-20s; the Conservative Party has rocketed into the mid- to high-40s, and has even touched 50 per cent in one survey.

The numbers underlying those voting intention figures seem, if anything, worse. The Conservatives have huge leads on leadership and economic competence – often even more reliable indicators of election results than the headline numbers. High turnout groups such as the over-65s have turned against Labour in unprecedented numbers. Working-class Brits have swung towards the Conservative, placing once-safe Labour seats in danger. There are limited, but highly suggestive, hints among the data that the swing against Labour is higher in its own marginal seats – a potentially toxic development for any party seeking to hang on to MPs, as Conservatives defending apparently impregnable majorities under John Major in 1997 would attest.

All the while, Labour seems confused about what it is really for. Try as he might, Keir Starmer’s term as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary has been marred by a fatal confusion and indecision about the extent of the UK’s future engagement with the European Union’s single market. Labour seems neither the party of Brexit nor of Remain, but one determined to irritate as many voters as possible. A similar situation reigns in Scotland, where nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon face Conservative Unionists led by Ruth Davidson, and Labour struggles even to gain a hearing.

Many Labour policy offers – free primary school meals for all, the promise of free university tuition, nationalising the railways, upholding the triple lock of pensions, opposing National Insurance rises for the self-employed – are pleasingly universal, while in isolation appealing to different electoral groups. But together, they represent a massive shift of resources to higher-income Brits that would take huge tax rises to offset. Labour is dangerously close to offering a regressive package under the guise of left-wing radicalism. This is pretty much as far from the British people’s electoral sweet spot as it is possible to imagine.

It is therefore little wonder that Labour lags so far behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. Even some Labour strongholds appear likely to fall - regional polls from London and Wales suggest that many Labour seats will be lost in the party’s remaining citadels. Brutal stories are already coming in from the campaign trail. Rumours fly of truly epochal losses - though it is important to note that other anecdotes seem much less dramatic.

Still, there are other indicators – all too easily missed in the heat of the moment – that point in the other direction. Labour’s performance in local by-elections has been dire for the main opposition party, but the swing towards the Conservatives has been running at "only" just over 2 per cent. The party has certainly suffered some big swings against it, and it has lost wards to the Conservatives in local authorities as varied as Hertfordshire, Harrow and Middlesborough. But there is no evidence that its vote has collapsed on the scale that some of the polling suggests.

Relatively recent history should also give us pause before we write Labour off altogether. Consider the last two general elections in which Labour had near-death experiences, in both 1983 and 2010. Britain’s third party - first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats - seemed about to overtake Labour in the popular vote, and steal scores of seats from the bigger progressive party. On both occasions, Labour was able to draw on hitherto unguessed-at wells of cultural identity and strength to pull away right at the campaign’s end. These are in fact the only elections in recent times when the polls have underrated, rather than overestimated, Labour’s likely score. It might be that the same phenomenon emerges this time.

The Conservatives’ huge lead right now has not resulted from a sudden collapse in Labour support, but rather from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s well-publicised implosion. If anything, after about a year of steady decline, the last week or two has seen Labour’s twelve months of slow deflation grind to a halt. Labour’s numbers have even ticked up a point or two as some voters appear to rally around "their" flag. It might be that, as you squeeze the Labour vote down, it becomes more resilient to further shrinkage.

As the Conservatives try to push into Labour’s heartlands, they might find it harder and harder to persuade voters across, from Ukip as well as from Labour. The Conservatives’ image is still far from good in such communities, whatever the underanalysed and separate appeal of PM May as a strong, considered leader in need of a negotiator’s mandate in Europe. Voters might be attracted to May, and repelled by Corbyn - that does not necessarily mean that they will actually vote Conservative. There is little evidence, so far, of any realignment in how voters see themselves – whether they "are" Labour or Conservative, rather than the more ephemeral question of whether they will simply vote for those parties.

Humans always look for patterns. Experts are no exception, while journalists and commentators can always jump to rapid – but wrong – conclusions in the overexcited heat of an election campaign. So it is with the threat of a Labour catastrophe on 8 June. The danger of just such a result is definitely there. But some of the data points we already have, and two recent elections at which Labour walked close to an abyss, cast a little bit of doubt on the inevitability of such an outcome. There are still just over six weeks to go. A Conservative landslide is still quite likely. But it is not certain. We should keep an eye out for the many hints that May’s gamble might end in a rather less crushing victory than we have been led to expect.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan: forthcoming, May 2017).

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