Ed Miliband delivers his speech at the Labour conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Exclusive: The government's private assessment of Labour's energy price freeze

A report on the policy by the Department of Energy and Climate Change is released following a freedom of information request by the New Statesman.

No policy announced by an opposition party in recent years has had more political impact than Labour's proposed energy price freeze. It succeeded in shifting the economic debate from the deficit towards living standards (where it has largely remained since) and left the Tories in a strategic tailspin. The eventual reduction in green levies announced in last year's Autumn Statement would have been unthinkable without Ed Miliband's pledge. 

Given the political and economic significance of the policy, I recently submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) requesting a copy of their private assessment of the price freeze. After months of waiting, with DECC securing several time extensions, I have now received the 32-page report, which you can read in full below. (It is notably replete with spelling and grammatical errors, for instance, "Chuka Uma" and "Peter Mandelson came out criticising the move ass counterproductive".)

The document has been redacted to exclude an assessment of the legal position and comparisons with similar policies, but offers a useful insight into how the department and others view the measure. Here are some of the most notable extracts.

European reactions and policy (p.9): "The issue has been raised with UK officials" 

The department notes that "the issue of energy prices is coming up the agenda in Europe" and that "the issue has been raised with UK officials by both the EIB [European Investment Bank] and the CION [European Commission]". It adds: "As a general position, the Commission doesn't favour regulated prices (albeit that there is express provision for them in the Electricity and Gas Directives) and it's contrary to the direction of travel on the internal energy market (which is focused on market-based pricing)."

"The Commission has made it clear that it will continue to take cases against Member States where price regulations don't meet EU law conditions. The most recent action of this type is against Poland's gas price regulation (on the basis that there is no time limit and prices apply to to all non-household users regardless of size.) Other actions have included investigations into France and Spain's price regulation on similar grounds."

Ministerial response (p. 30): "Ministers acknowledged that cost of living was an issue" 

In its round-up of ministerial reaction to the policy, DECC writes that "Comment from Government Ministers initially focussed on the prospect of blackouts and the lack of investment (particularly from abroad). As the debate progressed, Ministers acknowledged that cost of living was an issue, and that the best way to address that was right investment now (for example nuclear and fracking). Michael Gove sad [sic] he took the predictions of blackouts with a "pinch of salt". However, he acknowledging [sic] that energy prices were a big issue in the cost of living debate, but argued the Conservatives were addressing these." 

Polling on the price freeze (p.31): "Some polls are predicting Labour could tip the balance...enough to win the 2015 election" 

In its summary of polling on the issue, the department notes that "The polls point to the announcement being generally popular among voters. The YouGov poll reported in the sun [sic] shows over half (58%) of voters do not believe the government's 'scaremongering' predictions of power cuts. Polls show Miliband's popularity has increased and that he (and labour) 'stand up for' ordinary consumers."

In what appears to be a reference to Lord Ashcroft's recent marginals polling, it also notes that "Some polls are predicting labour [sic] could tip the balance enough in marginal [sic] to win the 2015 election."

Labour response (p.31): "Ed Balls and Chuka Uma [sic] noted the risk to Labour's relationship with business" 

The department summarises the response from Miliband's own party, noting that "Interestingly...an unnamed senior shadow minister conceded the policy risked being subject to judicial review". It also writes that "Ed Balls and Chuka Uma [sic] noted the risk to Labour's relationship with business, but that energy was a big part of business' costs. He also reiterated that fairer market [sic] would be a better environment for long-term investment" 

Referring to Peter Mandelson's public criticism of the policy, DECC notes "Peter Mandelson came out criticising the move ass [sic] counterproductive and poor for investment. Lord Myners took a similar critical stance. Much Labour comment in the first few days, however, was critical of Mandelson, in particular pointing out his connections to the energy industry, and his part in the windfall tax in the '90s." 

It adds: "Other comment was around the 'entrenched Big Six', and Caroline flint [sic] noted the Big Six may be opverplaying [sic] their hand as they were already offering fixed deals to 2017." 

SNP reaction (p.31): "A potential split in the party"

DECC highlights "A potential split" in the SNP with "Fergus Ewing ruling-out a freeze in the event of independence, but the left-wing of the party remaining open minded, awaiting the analysis." 

Trade unions (p.30): "Little comment"

"Little comment from unions other than GMB: 'Labour are stepping in where Ofgem has failed.'" 

Other reaction (p.31): "We may wish to renationalise essential elements of our infrastructure"

"Although other comments have praise for Labour's proposal many, again, focus on the detriment to investment and energy security. An interesting point made by Kevin McCullough [chief executive of UK Coal] is that although energy companies may not up sticks, they will focus efforts in other more profitable countries. He suggests that we may wish to renationalise essential elements of our infrastructure. Some used the announcement to call for investment in nuclear; and other comment focusses on going back to the old days of more socialist policies." 

Government assessment of Labour's energy price freeze

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser